Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished, Grain-Fed: What’s the Difference?

Every parent wants to feed their family safe, nutritious, and healthful foods. If you’ve seen recent news articles on grass-fed versus grain-fed meat, you’re probably left wondering how to choose what’s right to purchase for your house. 

The short (and pretty low stress!) answer is that whatever choice you make, either conventional or grass-fed beef or milk, is a great option for you and your family.

I grew up pretty proud of my town’s 2:1 ratio of cows to people. In every direction I looked, throughout the seasons, I could see cows grazing on green grass. It might surprise you, but the majority of those animals would not be considered “grass-fed” by the popular definition, though they actually do eat grass for the majority of their lives. In reality, all cattle, both dairy cows and beef cows, are grazed on pasture at some point of their lives and are literally grass-fed.

According to the USDA, however, beef labeled grass-fed means that the animal ate grass and forage (like hay or silage) from weaning (when it no longer drinks its mother’s milk) to harvest. These animals cannot be fed grain at any point. Those of us that grew up with cows tend to think of this style of production as grass-fed and grass-finished because they spend their entire lives eating only grass.

Farmers often choose to feed their animals grain to supplement the pasture diet, so that the animals can more efficiently obtain energy for growth, reproduction, or weight gain. According to  Ryan Goodman, a cattle farmer now living in Montana, the stomach of cattle is designed to break down foods, like grain, which can be a great source of digestible energy for their overall health.

There has been a lot of debate over which type of beef –grass fed or grain fed—is more nutritious.  Here are the three main distinctions that come up:

  • Types of Fat: Grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids, while grain-fed beef has more oleic acid with less saturated and trans-fats.  Both types of fat are considered “good fats” that can positively contribute to cholesterol. A study published earlier this year by Texas A&M University found that the impact of eating both kinds of meat on cholesterol is the same if the fat content of the meats is similar (more about beef’s fatty acid profile at FactsAboutBeef.com).
  • Vitamins A & E: Several sources have highlighted that grass-fed beef could be beneficial in having more Vitamin A & E than grain-fed beef. Actually, neither beef provides Vitamin A. Grass-fed beef provides only .02 grams more of Vitamin E per serving than grain-fed beef, so if you’re concerned about your vitamin intake, you will be much better off looking towards carrots, almonds, and fortified products. You can find this nutrient content and more for conventional ground beef and grass-fed ground beef thanks to the USDA Agricultural Research Service. 
  • Antioxidants and Beta-carotene: The final component that has gotten discussed as a difference is antioxidant and beta-carotene content. While grass-fed beef has generally been shown to be higher in these functional components, the best way to get antioxidants is to eat a diverse diet of colorful foods including fruits like carrots, greens, and blueberries.

The important thing to remember is that all beef is nutrient-rich protein, providing your body with a critical resource. Research suggests that higher protein intakes may be beneficial for health, contributing positively to weight management, muscle mass, preventing osteoporosis, and reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease. Many choose between grass-fed and grain-fed beef based on taste or price. Whatever choice you make regarding grass or grain-fed meat, you can be confident that your food is safe, nutritious, and healthful for you and your family.