Differences Between Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished, and Grain-Fed Beef
By the Dr. Perlmutter Team
As previously discussed, there are significant nutritional differences between the meat produced by cows that eat grass and those that subsist on grain. Beef from cows that eat only grass contains higher concentrations of essential nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, and conjugated linoleic acid. It also has lower levels of hormones, antibiotics and other toxic remnants from the industrial production process, which can have significant ramifications on our health, ranging from the microbiome to cellular health. Additionally, grass-fed cows live out their lives more closely aligned with how nature intended—freely roaming pasture land and consuming grasses available to them in their immediate environment—which makes the process more humane and environmentally-friendly.
However, like many of the buzzwords surrounding healthy living, there’s a lot of confusion and outright deception that surrounds the “grass-fed” descriptor. While certain trade organizations do their best to impose uniform standards, the use of the term “grass-fed” is, unfortunately, not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or the United States Department of Agriculture. This sadly leaves the label open to abuse by unscrupulous producers looking to harvest the benefit of the term without putting in the effort to truly raise grass-fed cattle. The process of getting the “grass-fed” label approved on packaging for a given farm’s beef is incredibly lax, and actually doesn’t even include a farm inspection! Essentially, the government takes farms at their word when determining whether or not their product should be labeled grass-fed.
What Does Grain-Fed Mean?
At the root of this issue is the fact that all cows begin their lives in the same way: for the first seven months, they subsist on a combination of their mother’s milk and the grass and plants available to them in their immediate environment. Between seven and nine months, however, industrially-raised cattle are moved to enormous feedlots, where they are kept in confined stalls and hastily fattened with soy- or corn-based feed. These cows are what we commonly call grain-fed and produce meat that is inferior to grass-fed beef in quality, nutritional value, and taste.
What Does Grass-Fed Mean?
As the advantages of grass-fed beef have become more and more apparent, farmers across the country have started to label their products grass-fed. Unfortunately, this label means very little because there is very little regulation surrounding its use. Producers can technically label meat produced by cows that transition to a grain-based diet at seven to nine months “grass-fed” because they started out their lives subsisting on grass. They can also supplement a grain-heavy diet with small amounts of dried grasses and call the cows “grass-fed,” even if the vast majority of their nutrients come from grains.
So how can you ensure the meat you are buying is truly grass-fed and has all the benefits we’ve outlined in our previous articles? Look for the “grass-finished” label!
What Does Grass-Finished Mean?
Meat that has been designated “grass-finished” is much more likely to come from cows that consumed only grass throughout their entire lives. While this term is still not tightly regulated, it is much harder for unscrupulous purveyors to develop workarounds for this label. In order to call meat “grass-finished,” the cow that it came from must have been “finished” with grass, meaning it ate only grass through to the end of its life. Given that all cows’ eat the same thing at the beginning of their lives, the critical information in determining the quality of the meat they will produce is what they ate at the end of it. Therefore, the “grass-finished” label is a much better indicator of quality because it directly answers that question.
Why Grass-Finished is a Healthful Choice
To summarize, meat sourced from grass-finished cows is far more nutritious, beneficial, and safe than meat sourced from grain-fed cattle, which has skewed nutrient profiles and contains harmful chemical by-products from the industrial cattle-rearing process. Grain-fed cows produce meat that is both dramatically higher in inflammatory omega-6 fats and deficient in healthful omega-3s. This is doubly harmful considering the ratio, or relative amount, of these compounds may be more important than their absolute levels in the blood. Furthermore, meat from grass-finished cows doesn’t contain toxic remnants of the antibiotics and hormones used to raise their grain-fed counterparts.
One study, published in the Journal Antibiotics in 2017, demonstrated just how readily remnants of the antibiotics used in industrial farming can be found in the food we eat. The study analyzed 150 samples of raw meat purchased from supermarkets in South Africa and found elevated levels of four common antibiotics—ciprofloxacin, streptomycin, tetracycline, and sulphanilamide—in a significant portion of them. This transfer of antibiotics from the industrial farming process to our dinner plates has wide-ranging implications on global and individual health. When one considers that antibiotics are primarily used to shield livestock from diseases that are directly caused by their enclosure in industrial feedlots, it becomes readily apparent why grass-finished cattle that roam freely until the end of their lives produce higher quality beef.
Unfortunately, because the term “grass-fed” is not well-regulated, we need to be vigilant in our food choices. Shopping for grass-finished beef will help you ensure your meat is truly from cows that only consumed grass. Hopefully, this article has empowered you to be a more conscious consumer when it comes to shopping for grass-fed beef, so you can truly enjoy its benefits!
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