Grain vs. grass fed: the debate continues

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If you turn on the TV today, more than likely you’ll hear pundits debate everything from the nation’s economy, hazing in the NFL, the role of the United States in foreign policy, Obamacare, celebrity marriages and subsequent divorces and more. Like it or not, there simply are countless topics we simply cannot stop talking about. 

In recent years, one of those topics has been food. More specific to the cattle industry, there is a continuing debate about which is better nutritionally:  beef from grain-finished cattle or beef from grass-fed cattle. A new review, which was supported by The Beef Checkoff and appeared online in the journal Meat Science , may help some answer that question. The review summarizes the nutritional characteristics and nutrient profiles of beef as reported in numerous studies comparing U.S. grass-fed versus grain-finished cattle.

“Even for nutrition experts like myself, comparing the nutritional profile of grass/forage-fed beef to grain-finished beef can be a little like comparing apples and oranges. Our goal in writing this paper was to summarize the available science on the nutritional characteristics of U.S. grass/forage-fed versus grain-finished beef in the practical context of a per meat serving basis,” said Shalene McNeill, Executive Director Nutrition Research at National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "A key take away from this Beef Checkoff funded work is both grass/forage-fed or finished and grain-finished beef contributes important nutrients to the U.S. diet and consumption of either can be compatible with efforts to improve the cardiovascular health of Americans.”

While evidence from four U.S. studies suggest that total fat content in beef from grass-fed cattle is lower compared to grain-finished cattle, that’s not the whole story. The review points to multiple sources that show beef fat deposition goes beyond feeding systems and is impacted by breed, stage of growth, age at harvest, carcass grade and cut of beef. 

Only one U.S. based study has reported a statistically significant difference in the cholesterol content of beef from grass-fed cattle and grain-finished cattle.

As beef is one of the primary sources for heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids in the U.S. diet, the review pointed out that U.S. grass-fed cattle produce beef with 30-70 percent less monounsaturated fat compared to beef from grain-finished cattle.

The review points out that more studies are needed to better understand the contribution of grass -fed beef, from a greater variety of beef cuts, to saturated fat intake in the U.S.

Only two studies have been found in the United States that compared levels of cell-protecting antioxidant nutrients in beef from grass-fed and grain-finished cattle.

What is the take away from this review? It looks like the debate will continue. Grass-fed or grain-finished, cattlemen have worked to deliver high quality beef that is a good source of protein, zinc, iron and other important vitamins and nutrients. In the meantime, at my house last night, Cowboy Beef and Black Bean Chili was on the menu to help warm up my cowboy husband after a long, cold day working cows in Kansas. 

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Indiana  |  November, 13, 2013 at 09:34 AM

And this article certainly did nothing to assist in the debate other than point to a couple of findings that grass fed may be a little bit better nutritionally than corn fed beef. How about flavor and price? Any studies reviewing all three of these elements together (price, taste, and nutrition)?

Ron Freeman    
Illinois  |  November, 13, 2013 at 12:29 PM

This debate will go on forever unless we actually have a discussion on the merits of both grain fed and grass fed. For any writer to assert that studies and information about the positives and negatives of grain fed and grassfed does not exist, is irresponsible and flatly not accurate. Common sense and an understanding of the connection that exists between grass fed animals and healthy diets are a no brainer. Until we move away from corporate studies determined to undermine the benefits of grass fed beef, we will never hear the truth. The grip that these corporations have on the media and some cattle organizations is immense, far reaching and very destructive.

Indiana  |  November, 13, 2013 at 01:43 PM

I could not have said it better myself. At least there two of us that see what's going on.

South Dakota  |  November, 13, 2013 at 02:00 PM

I eat gras fed that I raise myself because I like it better, and the people that buy it from me get to sample it before they buy it and they keep coming back and paying a premium. Genetics, age and the type of forage make a big difference. Not all cattle are meant to be grass fed, it is somewhat of an art form. Both are good, it is a matter of preference.

Texas  |  November, 13, 2013 at 02:58 PM

I eat beef that I raised and fed here on the ranch on a corn based ration without any antibiotics, hormones or additives because I like it better than grass fed ! I have friends in the business who raise and prefer grass fed. It is always a hoot when we get together for an amicable argument. I concur with the rest of your statement. At this point in time, it is irresponsible to claim either is better for ones health. Bottom line is preference.

Kansas  |  November, 13, 2013 at 06:37 PM

Grass fed reminds me a lot of "All Natural" beef. As long as there are rich city folks who believe that a product is better for them they will pay more for it, regardless if that is really the case. I would rather eat meat that has had a few antibiotics and was healthy when it was slaughtered as one that might have been sick or have had parasites (some of those migrate to the meat btw). And grass fed Beef is like grass fed Deer. Its really lean and has crappy flavor. The flavor of meat comes from FAT. And I don't mean the chunks on the edge of the steak, I mean the marbling within the meat. Fat is not the enemy. They key to any diet is eating the right portion size along with fruits, vegetables, and dairy. Any study you read will tell you that eating certain types of fat are good for your health as long as they are consumed in the right portion. Avacados are a good example, they are mostly fat but it is the type of fat that is good for you.

Wyo  |  November, 13, 2013 at 10:07 PM

ALL beef is medicine……..more health giving than any other single food you can eat. Some folks believe that certain types of beef are healthier than other types. Pretty much irrelevant whether this is true or not unless or until you are consuming almost all your nutrients via beef. This is because each bite of beef (any type) displaces a less nutritionally beneficial bite of something else with the very best combination of nutrients needed for your good health. For those that don't understand this……and are susceptible to marketing messages……or for those that are consuming almost all their nutrients via beef……

Norma v    
Oregon/nevada  |  November, 13, 2013 at 10:16 PM

I just like my beef tender but not mushy..I prefer corn fed but if supplemented with ractomine I will eat grass fed...most people don't have the privilege of raising their own eating and the industry should try to provide them with such.

The Big O  |  November, 14, 2013 at 08:53 AM

Well, that's all nice, but when I sit down to an expensive steak I've taken further time, money and effort to grill (up to about $9 now) I want it to TASTE GOOD. That means grain fed. I give a crap about the nutritional flavor sapping grass fed beef. People worry about nutrition wayyyyyy to much. Eat with some common sense and exercise some, and all is well. The rest is mostly genetic, and ya got what ya got. Lactoova vegetarians fall off their bikes exercising, dead before they hit the ground - too often to go overboard with nutritional worries.

November, 15, 2013 at 10:07 AM

Our beef is 100% grassfed Hereford. The calves are all born on the farm, from cows that are well-adapted to graze fescue, bermuda and crop residues. We finish our steers on very high-quality grasses and legumes, however, which greatly improves flavor. This beef tastes great, is tender if not overcooked, and brings back repeat customers year after year. Yes, all beef is good food, high nutrient density, great for iron, zinc, protein, and the B vitamins. But I see not a single mention in the article or any of the responses about the major differences between the nutritional content of grassfed vs. grainfed. Number one is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is available only from the meat and milk of grassfed ruminant animals. This is a big advantage, because CLA fights cancer, diabetes and obesity in ways that no other nutrient can. Humanity had access to CLA throughout history until the advent of the feedlot. Sadly, CLA immediately begins to disappear from the beef of cattle that have no access to forages. Other nutrients available in far higher percentages in grassfed beef include beta carotene, Omega 3 fatty acids, and Vitamin E. Check out the documentation at By the way, the NCA funded and published research about CLA around the turn of the millennium. When the NCA became the NCBA and discovered that only grassfed beef had it, all mention of CLA research quietly disappeared.

Virginia  |  November, 15, 2013 at 12:32 PM

Dr Susan Ducket @ Clemson has thoroughly compared the chemical profile, taste and tenderness of grass "raised" beef and grass finished beef as part of the Appalachian Grazing Project - see her work for details. Other university studies from western states compare fat profiles of the two types of beef and conclude that while grass finished has a higher concentration of beneficial Omega 3's and CLA, grain finished cattle have as much of both of these as grass raised cattle, albeit at a lower concentrations due to the higher total fat percentage. Very much like the Holstein cow producing more pounds of butter fat than a Jersey.

iowa  |  November, 15, 2013 at 12:38 PM

My family has been raising purebred blakc angus beef for decades. I prefer the taste of grain finished, but we cannot afford the corn anymore so we raise only all grass fed for the last 7 years. We found that we could not recoup the grain costs, even with the local ethanol plant. We always use good purebred bulls and found concentrating on that aspect we actually could produce bigger calves than with creep without the expense. Our grass fed calves average about 550 for steers and 490 for heifers. Not worth the added expense for corn. We also found for personal consumption we butcher younger and lighter, 7-800 pounds and there is still good marbling and taste. When you try to get the grass fed over 1100 the extra months are not as kind to the flavor. The meat becomes too lean with almost no marbling.

November, 15, 2013 at 12:47 PM

I agree. Driving across country especially in Wyoming i saw some terrible looking range cattle. We would have culled those from our herd years ago. but i am thinking they would be marketed as "grass fed" even though they were existing on scrub brush. In california my father got a deer and when we butchered it, it tasted like it had been seasoned. That is the lousy taste of the sagebrush that makes up the bulk of the animals diet. In Iowa the deer feast on corn and grass and have a superior flavor and texture. While my family raises purebred grass fed, i shudder to think of some of the animals others bring to market with the same label.

jo mcginnis    
georgia  |  November, 15, 2013 at 07:07 PM

Trying to take the fat out of a breed that has been bred for years to make fat is a loosing battle. That is the reason for the Beefalo breed. Calves raised on grass and ones raised on feed differ only in the time to reach the same weight and the amount of fat on the OUTSIDE of the meat. Not in the meat!

Irene da Cunda    
Bonaire.  |  December, 13, 2013 at 05:00 PM

Couldn't agree more with you and with and Ron Freeman. Unfortunately where I live, we only get the regular grain-antibiotic-hormone fed beef from USA. The best option here to eat good quality animal protein is goat (that graze almost free... sometimes you can see them downtown...) and local fish.

Irene da Cunda    
Bonaire  |  December, 13, 2013 at 05:04 PM

I meant you W.E. :) I thought my post was going to appear linked to the one I click "reply". First time posting, sorry

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