You might have heard that grass-fed beef is better than regular ol' beef. You've probably seen stories on the news or seen things on social media that make you want to know more about the benefits of grass-fed beef. But making the decision to switch to only grass-fed beef means you'll often be paying more for your meat, so it makes sense that you would want to know if grass-fed beef is worth it and what the real difference is from grain-fed beef. So let's get into it!
Breaking Down the Labels
Before we get into the nutritional value of grass-fed beef it's important to identify what the labels you see on packages of meat at the grocery store mean. In the US, beef must be properly labeled according to regulations established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Official USDA Definition of Grass-Fed Meat
In 2016, the USDA determined that it did not have the authority or ability to certify grass-fed cattle production procedures to prevent consumer confusion. As a result, USDA announced that it would no longer offer an official definition of grass-fed. This led to concern about the efficacy of labeling and its effect on consumer confidence.
In 2019, USDA updated the standards for receiving a USDA grass-fed label. The new standards require a government inspection to verify grass-fed claims and prevent ranchers from raising grass-fed cattle in feedlots.
The common labels you'll see that we will focus on today are grass-fed, grain-fed, grass-finished, natural, and organic. Each of these labels tells you specific things about the way the animal was raised.
You may notice that the vast majority of beef has no label at all other than the weight and price. That's because labeling isn't required. Processors pay to have products inspected and certified in order to be permitted to use USDA labels.
The Difference Between Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished, and Organic Beef
- Grain-finished: Most commonly, you won't actually see this label. The overwhelming majority of cattle processed for food in the US are finished on grain. What this means is that the cattle spent most of their lives grazing in pastures and eating at feedlots, but was given only access to grain in the last 100 to 150 days of its life. Grain is a natural way to increase fat and muscle bulk, particularly when the animal is prevented from getting exercise.
- Grass-Fed: Grass-fed cattle are pasture-raised. They eat forage, hay, and other grasses. Feedlots are not permitted. Grass-fed labeling indicates the rancher has demonstrated that the cattle meet minimum standards by USDA.
- Grass-Finished: There is lots of misinformation out there about what grass-finished means. The official description from USDA indicates that grass-finished cattle may be fed grain during their lives but are finished on grass. You'll most often see this label used as Grain-Fed and Grass-Finished.
- Natural: The Natural label indicates that the cattle was not treated with antibiotics or hormones to promote growth. While there is no scientific evidence to indicate that there is any difference in natural versus antibiotic or hormone-treated beef, many buyers are concerned that the use of these products may degrade the quality of the meat.
- Organic: Beef that is labelled organic has eaten only grains or grass that are grown organically without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or other inorganic ingredients with the exception of a narrowly drawn group of ingredients that have no organic alternative.
Controversy of Labeling
Labels on products are intended to provide consumers with confidence that a product is what the producer claims. Between 2016 and 2019, there was no official description of grass-fed in use by USDA. In 2019, responding to broad reports of consumer confusion, USDA established new standards defining grass-fed beef as being that which eats forage from a pasture throughout it's life.
One major controversy surrounding the grass-fed meat label is that it only provides the consumer with part of the information and leaves out what is most likely more important – how the grass-fed animals lived and were raised. Grass-fed labels don't tell you if the animal was raised in a pen, or what type of grass it ate, or whether it was given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic and grass-finished labels do not provide this important information either.
Where to Buy Grass-Fed Beef
One thing that should be apparent is that not all grass-fed beef is equal. Even the USDA recommends that you should source locally-raised grass-fed beef so that you can personally inspect the conditions the animals are raised in and make your purchase decisions based on what you see. Since that isn't possible for everyone, we thought we would share our most trusted source of 100% grass-fed beef. Check out the options at Greensbury. They've got great quality and will take care of you.
Is Grass-Fed Meat Healthier
There are lots of variables that determine the actual healthiness of the beef you buy. One thing that the experts all seem to agree on is that grass-fed beef is better for your health than grain-fed cattle. Understanding why grass-fed is considered better for you is important to deciding whether it is worth the extra cost.
Several studies indicate that grass-fed animals have less antibiotic resistant bacteria in the meat, regardless of whether they are treated with antibiotics. For example, E. coli bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.
Grass-fed animals contain less fat because the grass the animal eats doesn't have the high sugars of grains that lead to fat production. Several studies indicate that grass-fed beef may contain four times less total fat than grain-fed beef. The actual difference in fat can vary significantly based on the cut and the conditions the animal was raised in. Cattle raised in pens and fed a grass diet will have higher fat content than cattle that have access to pasture.
Different Kinds of Fat
Grass-fed and grass-finished beef is understood to contain less monounsaturated fat but about the same amount of polyunsaturated fat as grain-fed cattle. Grass-fed beef is leaner in fat content compared to grain fed because of the lack of monounsaturated fat. This is the type of fat that may reduce bad cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats are also good for you.
Grass-fed beef contains about three times as much Omega-3 fatty acids as grain-fed beef. While this sounds impressive studies have shown that the actual amount of omega-3 fatty acids available through eating beef is small. You would need to eat an unhealthy amount of beef to eat a healthy amount of fatty acids.
A 2013 research study conducted at Texas A&M found that grass-fed beef contained a higher percentage of saturated and trans fat than an equal amount of grain-fed beef. These unhealthy fats are believed to play a role in the formation of blood clots and cardiovascular disease, however recent research indicates that the truth is more complicated. Replacing saturated and trans fats with mono and polyunsaturated fats can reduce the risk of heart disease.
While grass-fed beef may contain less fat overall, it contains less healthy fat and more unhealthy fat than grain fed beef.
What Makes Grass-Fed Beef Such a Nutrient-Dense Protein?
While the less-fat argument may not favor grass-fed meat, it's reputation for being a nutrient-dense protein may make it a better choice for your family. Both grass-fed and grain-fed beef are ideal sources of key vitamins and minerals that are essential for life. Grass-fed beef can be higher in Vitamin A and Vitamin E along with other antioxidants, but how much?
National Institutes of Health Investigation
A 2010 study made the attempt to quantify the nutritional differences between grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef. The study compared and contrasted available research at the time. The authors note that there was considerable discrepancies in each study, however numerous studies found concentrations of beneficial vitamins and antioxidants to be around four times higher in grass-fed products. Their conclusion was that grass-fed beef is healthier than grain-fed beef, but that consumers can achieve the same nutritional values eating fattier cuts of grain-fed beef.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Gluten-Free?
A few years ago, a study looked at 17 cuts of beef bought at a retail store and examined them for gluten content. These were presumed to be grain-fed beef products. The researchers concluded that none of the beef samples contain enough gluten to not be considered gluten free. Grass fed cows will also be gluten-free.
Does Grass-Fed Beef Taste Better?
Probably the biggest difference most consumers will notice about grass-fed beef is that it doesn't taste quite like the regular beef we buy. The grass-fed cows develop a grass-like flavor. Some people prefer the taste, while others don't, it's really one of those subjective things. One thing is for sure, there is a definite difference in the flavor.
Grass-fed is also different to cook. The differences in fat content between grass and grain-fed beef means that the leaner grass-fed product cooks faster and dries out quicker. You'll want to use a good instant read thermometer when you are searing your steaks to make sure they don't overcook. Grass-fed steaks are often described as having a "chewier" texture but this is usually the result of cooking the steaks too long.
One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef is to look at the fat. Grass-fed beef fat is more yellow than grain-fed beef. The color is off-putting to some people, but it actually indicates one of the benefits of grass fed beef – the antioxidant beta-carotene.
How to Cook Grass-Fed Beef
There are a few easy tricks to take advantage of when you are cooking grass-fed beef. Whether it is ground beef or steaks, you'll want to change up the way you cook to get tender and tasty results.
The first thing you should do is use a high-quality seasoning rub on your steaks. We prefer using our Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings. The Chipotle and Original are the two we grab the most, but you should also take an opportunity to use our brand-new Butter flavor. You'll be amazed how good your steaks will be. It's quickly becoming one of our favorites.
Rub the steaks liberally with seasoning about 24 hours before you are going to cook them. Keep them in the refrigerator until three or four hours before you are ready to cook. Set the steaks on the counter to come close to room temperature. This helps evenly cook the steaks quickly without drying them out.
Heat a properly-cured cast iron skillet on the stove top with high heat. Sear the steaks for about four minutes on each side, then check the internal temperature with an instant read thermometer. A medium rare steak will measure about 140 degrees.
The most important step is to let the steaks rest. Resting allows the juiciness to be reabsorbed into the meat. Carving an un-rested steak lets the juices run out onto the cutting board, and that's not the best place for them. You should let the steaks rest for at least 15 minutes. You can let them go as long as 45 minutes without the temperature dropping too much.
If you're looking for a more detailed break-down, we have a whole other blog posted dedicated to cooking grass-fed meat.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth It?
You'll typically pay between $2 and $4 more per-pound for grass-fed beef. The main reason for the extra price has nothing to do with overall better quality, it reflects the additional expense of feeding cattle on grass. A rancher typically will need to keep grass-fed cows in the pasture for a year or more longer than if using feedlots and grain to bulk up cattle.
Buying grass-fed meat for the health benefits may be debatable. There is considerable difference in cuts of beef, quality of life, and the manner in which the beef was processed can have a substantial and unregulated impact on the nutritional value of the beef you buy.
Many people have a hard time adjusting to the different flavor of grass-fed beef. If you don't like the way it tastes, you probably aren't going to want to keep eating it. It can be particularly hard to swallow when you consider that you can get similar nutritional benefits from eating ribeye from grain fed cows.
The health benefits of grass-fed beef can be debated, but one thing is clear – cattle raised in pastures live a more natural life than those raised in feedlots. Conventionally raised beef provides tons of nutritional benefit on it's own, so the difference may not be that significant. We think the choice should be more about the flavor you get rather than the increase in vitamins and minerals.
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