We get asked if our beef is grass-fed all the time, sometimes by people looking for grass-fed beef, and sometimes by people who are hoping that our beef isn’t grass-fed. Most people are just curious. This started a deep dive into the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
I started trying to find a definition for both categories, and it turns out that there’s not an official definition for either. Grass-fed means that the animals were raised on grass except for the milk they got from their mothers. Grass-finished means that they didn’t get any grain during the finishing process at all, but they can be fed silage, alfalfa, and other forages.
Grain-finished animals are fed grain during the finishing process. They are also fed forages, and the grain is typically included as an ingredient in a mixed ration. Most beef in the US is grass-fed and grain-finished. The calves are raised on grass, and then at weaning time or some point after that the cattle are transitioned onto a grain-based diet, usually in a feedlot. That’s the production model that we use here at the Padlock.
Okay, so now that we’ve covered what they are, why do people choose one or the other? Proponents of grass-finished beef claim that it’s healthier, more environmentally sustainable and that it’s better for the animals. Proponents of grain-fed beef argue that it’s more efficient, sustainable, tastes better, and is more tender due to more marbling in the meat.
The first claim I investigated is the health differences. Grass-fed beef does have less fat than grain-fed beef. It also has a different fatty acid composition. Grain-finished beef has more saturated fat and monosaturated fat than grass-finished beef, which has a higher percentage of polyunsaturated fat. Different types of fat have different health impacts. There are other factors, such as breed and what type of grass they eat, that impact the fatty acid composition of beef.
One of the biggest health claims behind grass-finished beef is that it has more Omega 3s, which are polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs. Fatty acids are the molecules that makeup fats, and they come in four main groups. There are saturated fatty acids (SFA), PUFAs, trans fatty acids, and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA). The difference between types of fatty acids is determined by carbon bonds within the molecule. Each of these types occurs naturally in beef.
There is a lot of evidence that MUFAs are great for heart health. We’ve all heard about the benefits of olive oil which is very popular MUFA. MUFAs in beef tend to increase as marbling fat cells differentiate, so grain-finished beef tends to have more MUFAs. There have been two different studies that have shown that the higher MUFA content in grain-finished beef might be important for increasing HDL cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol that protects against heart disease. There is also some evidence that grass-finished beef could have the opposite effect.
PUFAs, especially Omega-3 fatty acids are widely known to be heart-healthy. There is evidence that they lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and can help prevent heart disease. Grass-finished beef has a higher proportion of Omega-3 fatty acids than grain-finished beef. The fatty acid composition of grass-finished beef has 25% more PUFAs than grain-finished beef, although grain-finished beef might have more PUFAs overall because there’s just more fat in it. It depends on the cut of beef as well, as the fatty acid composition is not the same throughout the entire animal.
Saturated fat makes up a greater percentage of the total fat content in grass-finished beef than in grain-finished beef. However, grain-finished beef has more total fat, so you’re not necessarily getting more saturated fat from a grass-finished steak compared to a grain-finished steak.
Decades of health guidelines have told us that saturated fat is terrible for you and will eventually kill you. However, nutrition research is difficult to do well. A lot of studies will look at one component of the diet and ignore the rest of the diet. People also forget or lie about what they ate, so survey data is often not the most accurate, and there aren’t many people who want to sign up to eat only what fits in a study.
Many of the claims against saturated fat came out of some old research that was not done well. If you want to follow a rabbit trail, do some research on Ancel Keys and the Seven Countries Study. It’s fascinating how that one study has influenced nutrition research and guidelines for decades now, although the research methods were flawed. Although new research has not confirmed that saturated fat is unhealthy, guidelines have been slow to change.
Some interesting findings about saturated fat in new research include a study done in Japan that showed that people who ate more saturated fat in their diets were less likely to have strokes than people who avoided saturated fat.
The biggest reason that people avoid saturated fat is to prevent heart disease, but statistical data from 41 European countries does not show that consumption of saturated fats increases heart disease. Multiple studies have shown that people who eat more SFAs can be healthier than those who avoid them if they also eat an overall healthy diet.
Since saturated fats have some health benefits, beef should absolutely be a guilt-free food for everyone. Whether you choose grass-finished or grain-finished, beef is a health food. Eating a steak and knowing that you’re nourishing your body while you eat one of the most delicious foods on the planet is a wonderful feeling.