Grass-fed vs grain-fed beef

Posted by: Scott Ko


On a recent visit to the South Melbourne Market, I came across butchers that promoted the use of organic grass-fed produce. Speaking to the vendors, they highlighted the multitude of benefits.

The classic statement ‘you are what you eat’ equally applies to cows as it does to humans. Back in the good ol’ days, beef was 100% pasture raised and grass-fed, which led to happy cows. However, increasing consumer demand for red meat, along with rising capital costs and limited space, meant that the old model was not economically feasible. For economic reasons, farmers shifted to grain-fed production where the time taken to fatten cattle was significantly reduced leading to higher profit margins.

But why the negative press? There are several reasons why grain-fed production is frowned upon.

Animal welfare

Cows are classified as ruminants i.e the majority of their diet is plant-based as depicted by their ‘four stomach’ digestive physiology, which is designed to break down plant material into digestible proteins and fats. Just like in humans, a diet high in carbohydrates and grain is unnatural for our bovine friends.

Grain is like ‘candy’ for cows – they love it and it makes them fat. Coupled with factory farming methods where cows are subjected to crowded, bleak pens designed to maximise weight gain and minimise overhead costs, the end result is the modern cow – highly overweight, ridden with health problems and living in uncomfortable conditions raising animal welfare concerns. Often, this results in the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and feed additives to reduce the chance of disease and to speed up the fattening process. Whilst there are ‘good’ beef farmers, it is fair to say the above stance is the norm.

Health concerns

Grain-fed cows produce meat with a higher intramuscular fat deposition – a much fancier way of describing the much desired ‘marbling’  effect that many associate with good flavour. Grass-fed meat tastes different; it is generally leaner but many prefer its natural, earthy flavour which vary from farm to farm depending on the variety of grasses that were consumed by the cow. If I were to recommend a variety of grass-fed beef, it would be grass-fed Angus – a prized cut amongst butchers and steak houses alike with a full-flavoured, tender taste . But there are also health benefits to eating grass-fed beef:

  • high in omega 3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA ) – in non jargon terms this represents the ‘good’ trans fat that has cancer fighting properties ( 80 days of a grain fed diet will destroy the omega 3 content )
  • higher in Vitamin B, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, beta carotene ( visually, the fat is more yellow compared to its grain fed counterparts)
  • free from antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants
  • reduced risk of e.coli

So, there you have it – organic grass-fed beef is the ultra premium and gold standard of the beef world in terms of health, taste and welfare benefits. Being a guilty non-vegetarian animal lover,  the big benefit is that animal welfare is a top priority. There are no bleak pens and it shows a greater respect for an animal that has died to feed us. Ideally, we should reduce our meat consumption, but grass-fed definitely trumps grain-fed beef in this respect.

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