Grass-fed beef is one of the most nutrient-dense proteins you can buy. It has an extensive micronutrient profile and contains a good amount of brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids.
Still, some skeptics argue that there isn’t a difference between grass-fed and conventional beef.
Below, you’ll learn the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, seven unique health benefits of grass-fed beef, and where to buy it.
What’s the Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?
Cattle are meant to graze on grass, preferably within open pastures. As the demand for meat has grown over the past century, farmers started feeding their herds grain-based products, usually made from corn and soy[*]. The difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef pertains to their diet: in one, the animals are fed grass while they’re alive, in the other, they’re fed grain-based feed.
The Difference Between Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished, and Organic Beef
There is a lot of confusion surrounding grass-fed beef, mainly because it’s not a USDA-regulated term. On January 12, 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, dropped grass-fed as an official term, leaving things more open to interpretation[*].
Things to Know: The Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grass-Finished
With the removal of the USDA term, almost any beef product could be labeled grass-fed. Most cattle raised by responsible farms graze in open pastures throughout the warmer months. However, it’s pretty difficult to allow animals to roam freely in the winter, when snow covers the ground.
During these colder months, the cattle eat corn-and-soy based feed. But, since they ate grass for part of (or for the majority) of the year, they could be labeled grass-fed. In these cases, there is not much of a difference between grain-fed beef raised by a responsible farmer, and grass-fed beef.
If you are looking for beef that comes from a cow raised entirely on grass, look for the “grass-finished” label. These animals graze on grass in the summer and alfalfa in the winter. However, know that this term is also not regulated by the USDA.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Also Organic?
Short answer: No.
Organic and grass-fed (or grass-finished) are two completely different things. “Organic” is a USDA-regulated term. Farmers need to complete a certification process, which can take up to three years, to use the organic label. Organic foods (such as organic beef) must be produced or raised on a farm that doesn’t use harmful pesticides, genetic engineering (GMOs), or sewer sludge.
As it pertains to beef, it is possible to buy organic, grain-fed beef. Cows from an organic farm were fed organic feed (i.e. organic corn- or soy-based products) during their lifetime. Organic animals must live in areas that encourage the welfare of the animal. These farms are inspected by a USDA-approved organic-certifying agent[*].
What to Look for When Purchasing Grass-Fed Beef
When you’re in the market for grass-fed beef, keep an eye out for products with the stamp of approval by the American Grassfed Association (AGA).
The AGA is known to be the most trustworthy and guarantees the animals never received antibiotics or hormones and were never fed grains.
The Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
Now that you understand the difference between grass-fed, grass-finished, and grain-fed beef, it’s time to dive into a few key differences. While they come at a hefty price point, grass-fed and grass-finished beef have been shown to have a few benefits, including:
#1: Grass-Fed Beef Has Fewer Calories
“If you eat a typical amount of beef per year, which in the United States is about 67 pounds, switching to grass-fed beef will save you 16,642 calories a year,” says EatWild.com founder Jo Robinson[*].
Beef from grass-fed cattle is lower in total fat content because their diet is more natural and clean. Although it would cost approximately $300 more a year, the amount of calories you can save is staggering.
#2: Grass-Fed Beef Helps Support Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
Beef from grass-fed cows contains a certain beneficial fatty acid called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). CLA can help prevent several diseases and conditions like obesity and diabetes[*]. A recent randomized, double-blinded study concluded that 37% of the people who were given CLA demonstrated better insulin sensitivity over those who weren’t given CLA. Insulin sensitivity helps promote healthy blood sugar levels[*][*].
Consuming grass-fed beef while following a ketogenic lifestyle can improve blood glucose levels if you’re insulin resistant. Utilizing a low carbohydrate, high-fat ketogenic prevents a rise in blood glucose, which signals the release of insulin (and can eventually lead to insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes).
#3: Grass-Fed Beef Contains Electrolytes
One common issue with people who begin their keto lifestyle is the keto flu. This can occur when electrolytes aren’t replenished once they’re flushed out. The three main electrolytes are sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
Fortunately, grass-fed meat has ample amounts of all three essential electrolytes. One grass-fed strip steak contains 732 milligrams of potassium, 49 milligrams of magnesium, and 118 milligrams of sodium.
#4: Grass-Fed Beef Helps Fight Cancer
Grass-fed beef contains roughly twice the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) compared to beef from grain-fed cows. Most naturally occurring nutrients containing anticarcinogenic properties are derived from plant foods, but CLA is unique because it’s one of the only anticancer nutrients derived from meat[*].
CLA is considered to be one of the strongest nutrients which can defend against cancer. A study conducted on women who were given high amounts of CLA-rich foods had roughly a 60% lower risk in breast cancer over those who had little to no amounts of CLA in their diet[*].
#5: Grass-Fed Beef Contains More Healthy Fats
Grass-fed beef provides up to six times more omega–3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. Grain-fed beef, on the other hand, contains higher levels of omega–6 fatty acids, which are already eaten in surplus in most standard American diets.
Here are some of the benefits from increased omega–3 consumption:
- Alleviates Rheumatoid arthritis: Omega–3s are highly effective in decreasing all markers of inflammation[*].
- Helps with depression: Researchers have seen an increase in mental well-being by supplementing with omega–3 fatty acids[*].
- Helps you focus: Recent studies conducted show omega–3s to be a promising alternative to alleviate attention deficit disorders (ADHD) over stimulant medications[*].
#6: Grass-Fed Beef Contains Less Bacteria
Some studies show that conventional beef is more prone to containing bacteria than grass-fed beef. One of the largest studies conducted by Consumer Reports analyzed 300 packages of ground beef. They found an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), in three of the grain-fed samples and zero in the grass-fed packages[*].
Additionally, they found 18% of the non-grass-fed beef samples containing superbugs — bacteria that is resistant to more than three types of antibiotics — compared to only 9% of beef samples from grass-fed livestock[*]. This is extremely rare, but can lead to food poisoning.
#7: Eating Grass-Fed Beef Can Decrease Your Risk of Heart Disease
Clinical evidence concludes a decreased risk of heart disease with an increased consumption of CLA, a nutrient abundant in grass-fed beef[*]. Grass-fed beef can help improve your heart health by:
- Antioxidants such as vitamin E
- High amounts of omega–3 fatty acids
- Less unhealthy fats
- Lower amounts of bad cholesterol (known as LDL cholesterol) a marker of cardiovascular disease
What Makes Grass-Fed Beef Such a Nutrient-Dense Protein?
Grass-fed beef is an incredibly nutrient-dense protein that can be worked into almost any healthy diet. Grass-fed beef contains:
- Two times the amount of lutein and beta-carotene compared to grain-fed.
- 500–800 mg of CLA, which is up to three times the amount over grain-fed beef.
- Up to 3.5 grams of omega–3 fats in grass-fed beef (the maximum amount for grain-fed is 1 gram).
In just one grass-fed strip steak (214 grams) you’ll receive[*]:
- 49 g protein
- 45 mg omega–3 fatty acids
- 0.3 mg Riboflavin (16% DV)
- 14.3 mg Niacin (72% DV)
- 1.4 mg Vitamin B6 (70% DV)
- 28 mcg Folate (7% DV)
- 2.7 mcg Vitamin B12 (2.7% mcg)
- 1.5 mg Pantothenic Acid (15% mg)
- 139 mg Choline
- 16.3 mg Betaine
- 19 mg Calcium (2% DV)
- 4 mg Iron (22% DV)
- 49 mg Magnesium (12% DV)
- 454 mg Phosphorus (45% DV)
- 732 mg Potassium (21% DV)
- 118 mg Sodium (5% DV)
- 7.7 mg Zinc (52% DV)
- 45 mcg Selenium (64% DV)
Where to Buy Grass-Fed Beef
Today, you can buy grass-fed beef in almost any grocery store, including large-chain grocers like Harris Teeter, Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods.
If your local supermarket doesn’t supply grass-fed products, you can reach out to a local farmer who raises grass-fed beef cattle in your area, or visit a farmers market. This is an excellent strategy if you are looking for grass-finished products so you can speak to the farmer in person.
Finally, there are plenty of places to buy grass-fed products online. Butcherbox is an excellent company which mails grass-fed beef to your doorstep. EatWild.com contains a great directory where you can search for grass-fed farms in your area.
How to Cook Grass-Fed Beef
Grass-fed products cook faster than grain-fed products. To prevent burning your cut of meat, follow these cooking suggestions[*]:
- Grass-fed beef cooks approximately 30% faster than grain-fed cuts, so use a meat thermometer to prevent overcooking.
- Always use tongs over a fork when tossing the beef over.
- Make sure to preheat the grill, pan, or oven before cooking.
- Don’t use a microwave to thaw out grass-fed beef. Thaw it in the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Because grass-fed beef is low in fat, be sure to coat it with avocado oil or olive oil to make sure it doesn’t dry out.
Is it Worth the Extra Money?
Grass-fed and grass-finished beef comes from cattle raised on grass or alfalfa for at least part of the year. Unfortunately, grass-fed is no longer a USDA-regulated term. To ensure you’re buying a quality product, purchase directly from a local farmer or look for beef with the AGA (American Grassfed Association) seal of approval.
Grass-fed beef has several health benefits. It contains more vitamins and minerals, omega–3 fatty acids, and CLA than grain-fed beef. These nutrients have been shown to fight a number of diseases and ailments.
As with all food, always purchase the highest quality you can reasonably afford. If grass-finished, organic beef fits within your budget, go for it. If it doesn’t, find a responsible farmer who raises their cattle on grass for at least part of the year.