Food shopping used to be so simple. You just would go to the supermarket, grab what you need, and that was it.
No one would really think about where it came from, how it got to the shelf, or what was really in the food you intended to buy. Much less thought was given to how the animals spent their lives or what they have been fed before being behind the butcher glass reaching your grocery shelves.
Since we are getting more conscious as consumers, labels and packaging now contain much more than just "Grade A Angus Beef" or "USDA Certified Organic".
Nowadays, food labels are filled with words like “Gluten Free”, “Free Range”, “Grass-Fed”, “Grass-Finished”, etc. It’s no longer simple Natural vs GMO or Organic vs Non-Organic. What do they all mean? How to go about making decisions? We’re here to help you make a more informed choice by comparing and contrasting what each beef label means and most importantly, which is the difference between Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef, who are also two of the most popular ones.
Table of Contents
- 1 Types of Beefs
- 2 Differences between Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef
- 3 Which Tastes Better?
- 4 Which is a Better Choice?
- 5 Why Grass Fed is More Popular & Why People Like it?
- 6 Tips for Buying & Choosing Grass Fed Beef
Types of Beefs
Currently, the choices offered to you are: Organic, Grass-Fed, Free-Range, Pasture-Fed, Grass-Finished, and Grain-Finished. Your beef can be one or a combination of those choices. Organic, Free Range, Grass-Feed, and Grain-Finished is different from Pasture-Fed, Grass-Feed, but Grain-Finished. What does it all mean? Let’s break it down.
Organic vs Grass-Fed
Not all Grass-Fed beef is Organic, and not all Organic beef is Grass-Fed. There are a lot of similarities between Grass-Fed and Organic. Both focus on the more natural way of raising cattle and the way they graze. Both focus on a more “free range” life for the cattle.
USDA states that in order to qualify for the Organic label, cattle must be:
There is no mentioning what the cattle is fed except that it has to be certified organic. That means that Organic beef can, and is most likely, fed grain and corn.
Like Organic cattle, Grass-Fed cattle:
Free Range vs Pasture Fed
As of right now, the term “Free Range”, “Pasture Raised”, or “Pasture-Fed” are synonymous.
According to USDA, “Free Range” and “Pasture-Fed” just means that the livestock, cattle and chicken, "has been allowed access to the outside.” Because of the vagueness of the definition of the standard, it is hard to ascertain how much time outside space the animal has spent and more importantly what kind of feed is being given to the animal.
However, USDA also allows certification from third-party organizations such as Certified Humane Program, which has stricter and better definitions for each label. The Certified Humane Program defines that to be Free Range “a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per animal.” and Pasture Fed means not only do they have to be able to graze freely outdoors but “offer from 35 to 108 square feet per animal.”
Grass Finished vs Grain Finished
USDA states that “ ‘Grass Finished’ is not the same as ‘Grass Fed’ because animals that are “grass finished” can be fed grain.”
Under Grass Finished, cattles can be fed any kind of diet which can be corn and grain. Weeks before they are sent to slaughter the cattle will be able roam and forage grass or other vegetables and crops.
Similarly, Grain Finished beef can also be fed any kind of diet. Some can also be raised in feedlots. Before they are sent to slaughter, their main diet will consist of mainly grain.
Differences between Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef
Just like all other living organisms, diets have a huge effect on the animals not just in how they live their lives but the content and taste of their meat.
Fatty Acid Composition
Cattle raised in a Grain Fed or Finished system are heavier in weight. Therefore, Grain Finished beef has more marbled fat. Inversely, Grass Finished beef is leaner, but since the cattle lived off solely natural forage, it is also richer in nutrients. According to Science Direct, on the whole, Grass Fed beef contains fewer fatty acids than Grain Fed beef.
A piece of Grass Fed ribeye steak will contain:
A piece of Grain Fed ribeye steak will contain:
Both have similar amount of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Because the vitamins and minerals in beef depend largely on the plants and crops that they grazed on. As long as their diets varied, the number of vitamins and trace minerals are similar.
Both Grass Fed and Grain Fed contain:
However, Grass Fed beef usually contains more traces of:
Health Benefits of Grass Fed
Although it does contain some Vitamin, minerals, and antioxidants. Fruits and vegetables are a better source. However, as a part of a balanced diet, Grass Fed beef is a good source of B12, iron, zinc and protein. Protein is essential in developing and keeping your muscle in shape.
Health Concern of Grain Feed
Although it doesn’t lack much in terms of nutrients, Grain Fed beef is more fatty. Consuming a diet high in fat has been known to cause high cholesterol and contribute to other health issues.
Furthermore, Grain Feed isn’t fully defined and thus we cannot truly know what the cattle consumed before it is sold and slaughtered.
While currently there are no definitive answers as to which method of raising cattle is better for the environment, the argument is that Grass Fed cattle graze on grass and forage while Grain Fed cattle rely on crops of corn, soy, and other grains. Those crops take up precious land, water, and other environmental resources that could and should be preserved. Fewer crops mean less fertilizer, chemicals, and other waste that could seep into our soil and water sources.
Which Tastes Better?
Because of the lesser content of fatty marbling and leaner composition, Grass Fed beef is meaty and usually described as “gamey” or “chewy.” The meat itself will have a “nutty flavor” from its diet.
On the other hand, Grain Fed beef does have the advantage of being fattier. In terms of cooking, fat adds flavor. Grain Fed beef is usually described as “sweet” and “buttery” with a texture described as “soft” and “tender.”
Which is a Better Choice?
The better question would be: where does your beef come from? If you know and can trust that the cattle was raised on a varied diet that isn’t just corn to force the cattle to gain weight faster or regularly treated with hormones or antibiotics. Then, Grain Fed beef isn't a bad choice.
Grain Fed beef is typically:
Grass Fed beef is typically:
However, regulation and certification standards are stricter for Grass Fed beef. You can reliably know and trust the cattle were raised well and consumed a more natural diet.
If you are okay with spending a little more or more health conscious, Grass Fed beef is a better choice of the two. Although both types of beef have their pros and cons, Grass Fed beef seems to have the most defined standards. However, if you can trust your supplier of beef, Grain Fed beef will produce a tastier cooked beef. That is if you are not counting the amount of fat or cholesterol consumption.
Why Grass Fed is More Popular & Why People Like it?
As I said in the upper section, grass fed beef means that the cattle received a grass or forage diet for their entire life. This means that the beef is 100% produced from an animal which has consumed only grass and forages, never anything else.
For this reason, grass fed beef is considered to be a healthier option than grain fed beef. When compared pound to pound with other types of beef, it has less total fat, and therefore less calories.
Tips for Buying & Choosing Grass Fed Beef
When it comes to choosing the best grass-fed beef cut, the common USDA grading system is not as accurate as you may think.
The current grading system relies on a measure of the amount of visible fat streaks or as known as marbling in the beef. It may work well for most grain fed beef but when it comes to grass-fed beef, it is not as accurate as it should.
So, before jumping and directly buying your grass-fed beef, here are a couple of tips and question to take in consideration before making the purchase.
Try a Small Sample Order
As it may be hard to find a good grass-fed seller/supplies, your best option would be to go first for a small sample order.
This way, you can try and test the cut before spending more money.
If you find the meat a little bit tough at first, give it another chance with a second order as it is common for beef producers to have a tough animal that slips into the mix.
If you find it tough again on the second taste, then you should look for a different beef producer.
Ask Question to the Supplier
Feel free to ask question and learn how the farmer/supplier is producing the beef that you are buying. Some of these questions include:
What is the Producer’s Slaughter Season?
Slaughter season may be important as grass finishing can only be done when the grass quality is sufficient for weight gains. Thus, since climates are seasonal, farms often cannot finish the slaughter year-round on pasture.
Have in mind that the slaughter season doesn’t have to end because the snow begins. If they say that their finishing season extends into the winter, you can ask about their additional management strategies they are using to maintain the weight gains after the growing season ends.
Other questions to ask are What breed(s) does your farmer use and what weight do the animals need to reach before they are slaughtered?
For these questions, there is no need for you to exactly know the answer. Just look for the evidence that the farmer knows the answer.
An Angus breed slaughtered at around 1000-1100 pounds would be at his finished weight while a Simmental slaughtered at the same weight, will come out under-finished, tough and flavorless.
Large animals take longer to finish, but will be heaver when they reach their target weight compared to smaller framed animals.
An Angus can finish as young as 16 months of age while a Simmental requires 20-22 months to reach the target weight of 1400 pounds. Some large-framed tropical breeds may require in excess of 24 months and be even heavier.