Grass-fed, grain-fed, free-range, there are so many terms floating around these days that sometimes it’s easy to get confused. Don’t worry; we are here to help. Here’s what you need to know about the difference between grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef.
Home cooks already have enough of a challenge at the butcher shop. Porterhouses, strips, sirloins, flanks, and ribeye all seem like good options. Each cut has its own pros and cons, with varying fat content and consistency.
After we make our pick, we face more tough choices. Do we grill, roast, or pan-fry our beef? Which starches and vegetables make the best pairing? What about sauces and marinades? The possibilities are mind-boggling!
On top of all that, we’re presented with a new set of variables. Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef is the newest layer to the beef conversation, and we’re told it is far more important than we ever imagined.
We’ve been so focused on what we’re making for dinner, who would have thought we’d be talking about what our food had for dinner beforehand?
It turns out, the diets of cattle can have a big impact on the quality of our beef when it hits the plate, both in taste and nutrition.
Let’s examine the effects of grain vs. grass on the growth and development of cows on the ranch. Then we will determine which type of beef is best for our needs in the kitchen, the constraints of our wallets, and the health of our families.
We all know that cattle farming has scaled up massively in the past few decades (with some questionable practices), but the fundamentals of raising cows have pretty much remained the same over time.
As soon as young cows are able to get up and go, they are roaming throughout the pastures and enjoying as much grass as they want.
According to an article from Healthline, it is around 7-9 months old that most cows are moved to feedlot facilities where they are kept stationary and fattened up until they are ready to be taken to a slaughterhouse.
It is at these Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that things get a bit more complex.
While most cows are fed a combination of grain, soy, corn, and fruit for their entire lives, some ranchers incorporate grass into their beef cattle’s diets to achieve the sought-after “grass-fed” label when they market their beef. This is typically in the form of dried grass as not all grass-fed cows have the ability to graze about outdoors. Additionally, these cows are often given both antibiotics and growth hormones once they are moved to feedlot facilities.
In some cases, a cow’s diet only has to be 30% of grass in order to be considered grass-fed. The idea that grass-fed cows are roaming free and foraging for food is simply a myth. That is true for only a very small fraction of grass-fed cattle.
The reality is that the cost and time required to raise 100% grass-fed, organic cows is simply too cost-prohibitive for the majority of the world’s farmers.
You can search the supermarket for this type of beef, but it’s unlikely you’ll be very happy with the selection or the price.
With that said, a 30% grass diet can still make a big impact on flavor and nutrition, so don’t get locked into the “all-or-nothing” mindset when it comes to selecting beef.
What it Means to be Grass-Fed
Not all labeled grass-fed beef is 100% grass-fed. While most cows start their lives roaming pastures and drinking their mother’s milk, the majority of these cows will be sold to feedlots where they are either given a grain diet or a combination of grain and dried grass/hay. A cow only requires a diet of 30% grass to be considered “grass-fed”.
Organic Beef Vs. 100% Grass-Fed Beef Vs. Grass-Finished Beef
What is Organic Beef?
USDA Certified Organic Beef should clearly feature the official USDA organic seal. Additionally, the cattle qualifying for that beef product must have met the following requirements:
- Raised in living conditions which accommodate their natural behaviors, including, the ability to graze on pasture
- Fed 100% organic feed and forage, specifically no GMO feed
- No antibiotics or hormones
Organic Beef, however, does not equal 100% grass-fed beef.
What is 100% Grass-Fed Beef?
Although all cows forage and graze in the first several months of their lives, we now know that doesn’t always mean a 100% grass diet later in their lives. To ensure that you are purchasing beef that has only ever consumed grasses and forages, look for a label with 100% Grass-fed beef on it.
What is Grass-Finished Beef?
Grass-finished beef is another way of saying 100% grass-fed beef. It means that the cattle start their life foraging and grazing and nursing on their mothers’ milk, but it also means that rather than being sent to a feedlot and pumped with grain and antibiotics, these cows are “finished” with only grasses and forages.
How to Pick 100% Grass-Fed Beef
When shopping for beef at the supermarket, look for one of the following labels, “100% Grass-Fed” or “Grass-Fed + Finished Beef“.
Grass-Fed Vs. Grain-Fed: Which is Healthier?
Perhaps the biggest selling point of grass-fed beef is that its nutritional content is thought to be superior to its grain-fed counterparts.
But do the health benefits of grass-fed life up to the hype?
As far as protein and fat content go, there really are no major differences between the two, at least from a macronutrient standpoint.
But as Healthline points out, it’s really all about the type of fat in question.
Grass-fed beef contains less monounsaturated fat (the “healthy” type of fat found in olive oil, avocado, and certain types of nuts). However, it contains up to five times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed, which is nothing to scoff at. These compounds have been backed by tons of research showing they help fight cancer, reduce inflammation, improve eyesight, and even boost brain health.
There are also much higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in grass-fed beef, although this type of fat is often trimmed off before it is sold to consumers.
It’s important to note that grass-fed beef also has higher levels of micronutrients like B-vitamins, vitamin E, omega-6, vitamin A, beta-carotene, and other key minerals.
Okay, so grass-fed may be better for us, but what about the planet?
Environmentalists point out that grass-fed beef may even be more harmful to the planet than grain-fed, according to an article from One Green Planet. It takes up a lot more resources to raise a cow on open pasture, so we shouldn’t overlook the impact on Mother Earth, either.
Keep in mind that grain-fed cows are no slouch when it comes to nutrition. As long as you cook it right and supplement it with some veggies, you can still obtain the full spectrum of health benefits from grain-fed beef.
Taste and Texture
Sure, health is great and all, but what about TASTE?
While some culinary critics assure us that grass-fed beef has a superior, complex, and nuanced flavor, we can’t deny that grain-fed beef tends to be more buttery and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
This is due to the marbling fat content resulting from a grain-heavy diet. Some also say that corn-fed beef has a somewhat sweet taste compared to the rest.
You’ll find that grain-fed cattle cuts are a bit more tender and juicier, and also require less fat from outside sources when cooking.
According to the legendary beef purveyors at D’Artagnan, those seeking a leaner cut of meat will likely be satisfied with a grass-fed steak.
If you enjoy meats like elk, bison, and venison, grass-fed is for you, as it tends to have a more gamey and mineral-driven flavor profile.
Of course, each beef dish calls for a unique cut, which we’ll discuss next.
Grass-Fed or Grain-Fed, Which Should You Choose?
Remember, the red color is not an indicator of ripeness, nor is the amount of green an indication that it’s In general, grass-fed beef is leaner when compared to grain-fed beef. If you prefer your steak to be juicier with more marbling throughout, grain-fed may be right for you. Additionally, 100% grass-fed beef will come at an additional cost (usually between $2-4 per pound).
Best Beef Recipes
Whether you end up picking a grass-fed or grain-fed cut of beef, you absolutely need to check out our article on how to cook the perfect pan-seared steak. Read it, bookmark it and go back to it whenever you want because it truly is the ultimate beginner’s guide!
If you want a rule of thumb for selecting grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef, just consider how heavily you are going to cook the meat itself, and how much extra seasoning is necessary for your finished product.
For example, when pan-searing a ribeye for a special occasion, you’re probably justified in spending another couple dollars on going grass-fed. Just a minimal amount of salt, pepper, and butter is going to allow the amazing flavors of the beef to come to life.
On the other hand, cooking up a bunch of ground beef for taco night may not demand you purchase the highest-quality meat in the store. After all, any nuanced natural flavor of grass-fed beef will likely be overpowered by spices and other condiments like sour cream and guac.
When it comes to middle ground recipes like our garlic butter steak bites, it’s really up to you which style of beef you select. Go with grass-fed if you want a more rustic and beefy bite, or choose grain-fed if you want more sweet flavors and a tender texture.
There are some instances where we recommend going with 100% grain-fed goodness, like for our Salisbury Steak recipe. You’ll be piling on the onion, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce anyways, and you want the most succulent and juicy beef possible to go along with it!
Sometimes an acidic marinade calls for a tougher cut of beef to balance things out, and that’s the situation with our chimichurri steak bite recipe. If you can swing it, pick up a grass-fed sirloin to make the most of this amazing dish. The vinegar, oils, and herbs will soften things up while maintaining that stellar beefy flavor to accompany the spice.
Every now and then, you want some super tender steak strips to maximize meltiness, as is the case when making quesadillas. It simply wouldn’t be right to use a pricey cut of grass-fed beef when your goal is to make the most cheesy and beefy creation imaginable.
There’s one more question we all have on our minds: what about chili? On the one hand, there is something to be said for the sweet and crumbly characteristics of grain-fed beef for a pot of chili. But some recipes call for tougher cuts simply due to the long and intense cooking process it requires. We’ll let you make the executive decision on which type to choose for your next chili night.
As it turns out, the debate between grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef may not be as substantive as some think, but our home cooks can still benefit from knowing the ins and outs of selecting beef. There are definitely some recipes that call for a particular type of beef, and that can’t be denied.
The next time you’re at the butcher counter, consider all the factors at hand, from taste to health benefits, from the cost on your own wallet to the cost on the environment.
There’s not enough evidence on either side to say that you MUST pick one over the other, so use your best judgment and remember most of all to enjoy your beef to the fullest!
Do you have a preference between Grass-Fed or Grain-Fed Beef?
Tell me about it in the comments below! I always love to hear your thoughts. And tag me #theforkedspoon on Instagram if you’ve made any of my recipes, I always love to see what you’re cooking in the kitchen.