In the world of beef, grain fed vs grass fed beef is a hot topic. Between conversations of sustainability, nutrition, and taste, there many debatable issues that can make it difficult to make a choice on which beef you want on your plate.
In the world of beef, the choice between grain-fed and grass-fed options has become a hot topic, influencing the palates of carnivores and sparking conversations about sustainability and nutrition. Understanding the distinctions between these two feeding methods is crucial for making informed choices about the beef on your plate. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the differences between grain-fed and grass-fed beef, exploring their impact on taste, nutrition, and the environment.
Grain Fed vs Grass Fed Beef: Defining the Terms
First things first, let’s define the basic systems. We are going to just assume the the grass fed beef we are discussing here is grass-finished beef as well. Let’s clear this up, grain-fed cows can still be labeled grass fed. Unfortunately, some people try and trick consumers into thinking they are buying the health benefits of grass finished beef, when in reality, it can have grain in it.
Grain fed beef is from cattle that is generally fed a diet of grass and grains, such as corn and soybeans. The majority of these grain-fed cattle start on a pasture, drinking milk and eating grass. However, conventionally raised cows are typically later moved to feedlots and fed mainly grain-based feeds. Grain feeding accelerates growth speed and marbling of the beef. This is also known as conventional beef.
Grass-fed (& finished) Beef:
Grass fed beef is from cattle that are fed a grass diet for their entire lives. These cattle usually live on pastures. Grass feeding provides a leaner meat and has a distinct flavor.
The Differences in Flavor
The taste of the beef will be different based on if the animal was fed a grain-based diet or was grass finishing.
A grain fed animal is known for it’s rich marbling that many people look for that comes from the grain-based feeds. It has a higher fat content which contributes to a robust, buttery flavor. If you are like most people in the United States, you may prefer the taste of grain-finished beef, particularly those from corn-fed cows.
Grass-fed beef cattle have a leaner profile with less marbling. The meat has a more natural flavor, often being described as intense and complex. Grass fed meat also tends to be firmer and more chewy.
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The cooking process varies between the different types of beef. However, when cooked correctly, it doesn’t matter which type of beef you choose because they both can be tender, juicy, and full of flavor. The most important aspect of cooking is the internal temperature. When beginning to learn to cook beef, buying an internal temperature gauge can help you accurately monitor the temperature of your beef so it doesn’t get ruined.
Grain-fed animals generally have more marbling and fat-content, so the cooking process is more forgiving for mistakes. There is less of a risk of overcooking it.
Grass-fed meat is more finicky. Here are some tips on cooking grass-fed:
- Let beef come to room temperature before cooking. This will allow the beef to reach internal temperature faster.
- Generously apply butter or your choice of fat when pan searing. This helps the meat retain its moisture effectively.
- Lower the cooking temperatures down by about 50 degrees F. This helps preserve moisture and get to the proper internal temperature without burning off the fat, which results in burning off the taste.
- Pull beef cuts like grass-fed steaks when the internal temperature is about 120 degrees. Up to 130 degrees F for steaks a bit more done. Cooking too much more than that will dry out the beef.
- Allow beef to rest after cooking. Thick-cut steaks such as ribeye or strip steaks can rise up to 5 degrees over a 10-minute rest and roasts such as prime rib can rise up to 10 degrees over a 30-45 minute rest. Resting your meat also helps the juices redistribute so that when you cut in, the juices go in your mouth, not on your plate.
- When slicing beef, go against the grain to ensure optimal tenderness.
To see a study on the fatty acid compositions of beef from cattle fed either grass or grain-based feed check out this study here.
Grain fed beef is higher in total fat and contains more omega-6 fatty acids. There are still vitamins and essential nutrients in grain-fed beef. However, it is tough to compare it to the heart-healthy omega-3 fill grassfed counterpart.
When buying grain-finished beef, try to source a small-scale producer instead of a feedlot. These small-scale producers normally focus on producing high-quality, deliciously marbled steaks.
Grass fed beef is lower in total fat, has fewer calories, and has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and certain vitamins. The grass-fed approach is often associated with a more nutrient-dense meat, known as “good for human health.” Grass-fed beef may be easier for some people to digest, especially for people who don’t tolerate grain well.
Here are some vitamin facts from understandingag.com:
The most recent studies found that alpha-tocopherol is three times higher in grass-fed vs grain-fed beef meat. Tocopherols are vitamin E precursors best known for their anti-oxidative effects. Similar to carotenoids, tocopherols protect against cardiovascular disease (Huang et al., 2019), certain cancers (Das Gupta & Suh, 2016; Helzlsouer et al., 2000), brain function decline (Mangialasche et al., 2012), and reduced eye-sight (Delcourt et al., 1999).
Ascorbate (vitamin C) compounds were 1.5 times higher in the grass-fed beef compared to grain-fed beef. Even though meat is not a great source of Vitamin C, higher concentrations in meat have been found to improve shelf stability and quality of the meat. Mitsumoto et al., 2006; Okayama et al., 1987).
The B Vitamins (B3, B5, B6) are typically 2-3 times higher in grass-fed beef due to the active grazing of growing forages. (Duckett et al., 2009; Seck et al., 2017). However, these vitamins can be added to grain-fed rations to raise their levels in the meat. This is not necessary in grass-fed diets. Niacin (a form of Vitamin B3) was nine times higher in the grass-fed beef compared to the grain-fed beef. Niacin promotes a healthy nervous system, digestive system, and skin.
The production of grain-fed beef can have a higher environmental impact because of the resources required for feed production, as well as the management of feedlots. However, not every corn-fed cattle is raised in a feed lot feeding system. There are many small-scale producers raising cattle in a natural environment. Find a local beef producer near you to support these beef products.
Grass-fed beef is generally more environmentally friendly, as the grass-fed cattle are typically grazed sustainably. These producers are generally more concerned about regenerative agriculture than the feedlot counterparts.
Which One for You?
At the end of the day, the choice between the types of beef comes down to your taste preferences, health goals, and ethical considerations. Whether you prefer the sweeter taste of corn-fed beef or the leaner, natural flavors of grass-fed beef, understanding these significant differences can empower you to make the best choice you need to make as a beef eater.
Lastly, stay tuned for more insights into the world of beef, where every cut tells a story of flavor, tenderness, and endless culinary possibilities.