When you’re shopping for the best beef, there’s more to it than you may realize. Factors like the way the cattle was raised, what it was fed, the pasture rotation practices, and whether or not it was given antibiotics and growth hormones all affect the quality of the meat — both in terms of nutrition and taste.
You may have noticed different labels like grass-fed and grass-finished and wondered what they actually mean. Let’s look at the differences and similarities between grass-fed and grass-finished meat to discover which type is best for your plate.
A brief history of the North American meat industry
Thousands of years ago, large herds of cattle roamed free on the fields of what would later become North America. After that, in the early days of agriculture, farmers rotated their herds between pastures to give the land and the grass a chance to recuperate in the off-season. This promoted a natural cycle (sun to grass to cows to fertilizer) and ensured the land wasn’t overgrazed, making the grass and the cows that ate it full of nutrients and vitamins.
As the population of America grew and 20th-century industrialists and politicians searched for ways to use our massive excess of American corn, they started using it as grain feed, and the demand for meat grew and our society transitioned from eating meat as an occasional treat to eating meat as a daily staple.
This created a fierce cycle: farmers raised more cattle by adding in grain supplements and altering best practices to keep up the demand, but that surplus of meat led to more demand, which led to more grain feed and other industrial beef practices being normalized.
The problem with prioritizing quantity over quality is that industrial meat and supplemental grains and feed mean the animals get fewer nutrients, which means they get sicker, which means they need antibiotics to keep them alive, and thus a race toward the bottom of quality and sustainability is created without a second thought to what that meat does to our bodies, our world, and the taste and texture of the product itself.
And all of that nuance is poorly translated through beef product labels.
Today’s labeling of beef products is confusing
These days, there are several unique ways of feeding and raising cattle. If you are looking for the best nutritional beef products, it is essential to start by looking at the labels. The problem is, there is no strictly enforced standard on labeling claims, which creates confusion [*].
Grass-finished means that the cows ate grass, plants, and shrubs their entire lives. Grass-fed means that cows began by eating grass but could have been fed grain feed at some point in their lives. Grain-fed means the cows predominantly consumed grain feed, resulting in diminished nutrition and increased disease in cattle [*].
There is an old saying, “you are what you eat,” which definitely applies here. The nutritional value, taste, and quality of beef all depend on what type of diet the cattle are fed.
We’re going to look at the two most popular labels: grass-fed and grass-finished, in more detail, and explain why one is substantially better than the other.
What is grass-fed beef?
Grass-fed beef is a loose term that can be placed on any cow that was fed grass at some point during its life.
Grass-fed cows are also called “conventional cows.” They begin their lives by drinking their mother’s milk and eating grass. By eight months, or as soon as they are weaned off their mother’s milk, they move to feeding lots. In feeding lots, they receive a supplemental diet of grain byproducts, corn, protein supplements, soy, and sometimes even beef tallow from neighboring slaughterhouses (which is essentially mass cattle cannibalization) to help them quickly gain weight and produce more meat.
As we said earlier, there are no strict rules regarding grass-fed labeling. That means there’s room for companies to abuse the grass-fed label. Cows that did not have a complete grass-fed diet can still receive a “grass-fed” description, which is misleading to customers. And, just because a product is labeled grass-fed does not mean it was also pasture-raised. Many grass-fed products come from cows who sit in feedlots their entire lives.
In the end, almost all cows are fed some grass at some point in their lives, but the grass-fed label is so loose it doesn’t mean much more than calling a vegetable “all-natural”.
Grass-fed beef benefits and disadvantages
Cows are grass eaters, so adding grain feed to their diet upsets their stomach’s acidity levels, disrupts digestion, and creates a breeding ground for bacteria. Grain-fed cows also ingest hormones as part of their diet. Synthetic estrogen, testosterone, and growth hormones are often used to fatten up cows at a quicker pace.
When you eat hormone-treated beef, you are also ingesting the hormones that it was fed. The research is still out on how hormone-treated beef affects our health in the long run, but several studies suggest that those who are susceptible to certain cancers or have hormonal imbalances should not consume grain-fed and hormone-treated meat [*][*]. And is that really a chance you want to take?
Also, cows raised in feeding lots often don’t have much space for movement and exist in crowded conditions. This can cause some stress to the animal, sending them into “fight or flight” and elevating their cortisol levels. Over time, high cortisol levels can result in fat gain, which is another reason why grass-fed beef tends to have more fat [*].
Grass-fed and grain-fed beef do still contain important nutrients like vitamin B, protein, iron, and zinc, but grain-fed beef contains four times more saturated fats than grass-finished beef, which is not healthy.
And now, onto grass-fed’s rightful superior, grass-finished.
What is grass-finished beef?
Grass-finished is what most people think grass-fed beef is. Unlike grass-fed cows, grass-finished cows spend their entire lives eating grass, plants, and shrubs on pastures.
Another term for grass-finished cows is “pasture-raised.” Grass-finished cows are never finished on corn or grain byproducts, which are unnatural for the cows to eat.
Most grass-finished cows spend their lives roaming the pastures in the fresh air and are slaughtered at a more natural pace. Advocates of grass-finished believe that this environment creates healthier, happier cows. And this, in turn, produces better tasting and more nutritious meat.
Grass-finished beef benefits and disadvantages
Grass and plants provide all the nutrients and vitamins a healthy cow needs, making beef from grass-finished cows highly nutritious.
Grass-finished beef also contains 2-4 times more Omega 3 fatty acids than grass-fed beef. Omega 3 is essential for hormonal health, cognitive function, healthy skin, cardiovascular health, and keeping the body’s anti-inflammatory response under control [*].
Grass-finished beef also tends to have higher levels of E, B vitamins, potassium, and magnesium. And cows that predominantly grass store more vitamin A in their livers. Grass-finished cows also spend a lot of time roaming the pastures, maintaining a good fitness level, and producing lean meat.
There aren’t any downsides in terms of nutrition and taste with grass-finished beef, but it is more expensive, which can make it harder for some people to take advantage of it. We recommend ditching anything but grass-finished beef and building in the amount that makes sense for your budget. If you can afford to eat a lot of grass-finished beef — great! If you can only afford to have it every once in a while, that’s okay too. You can eat cheaper and more whole plants and purchase grass-finished beef for specific recipes and occasions.
Grass-finished is better for the environment, too. Cows may seem innocent enough, but they actually produce a serious amount of methane byproduct. Methane gas amounts to a staggering 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions [*]!
Pasture-raised, grass-finished cows that are raised with rotational grazing can help rectify those greenhouse gas emissions [*]. Rotation grazing is a practice of moving grazing cattle between pastures on a regular basis, and it helps “carbon scrub” or remove carbon dioxide from the air and enriches the soil. Animals raised on feedlots don’t give back anything, and sometimes their diet is so bad that their manure is considered toxic waste [*].
So… which kind of beef is better?
As you can tell, there’s a clear winner. Grass-finished beef may be a little pricier than grain-fed and grass-fed alternatives, but it’s always worth it. The nutritional benefits and knowledge that you’re supporting sustainable farming can’t be beaten.
The bottom line
Grass-finished beef comes from cows that exclusively eat grass and forage their entire lives. Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, can mean cattle that started on the grass and then were fed a supplemental grain diet or ended their lives eating grain.
Grain feeds have numerous nutritional and environmental downsides and paying for grass-finished if you can afford it is the better choice, no matter how you sear it.
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It turns out that what’s good for animals and the planet is also good for you. Our meat is tender and tasty, but it doesn’t have all the excess fat of animals fed with grain in confinement.
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Nathan Phelps is a writer, ethical foodie, and outdoors-aficionado hailing from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.