Grass Fed vs. Grain Fed Beef

Grass Fed Beef (Pastured) vs. Grain Fed Beef (Feedlot)

The argument for grass fed over grain fed beef can be couched in several ways; in this article I am going to focus on what I believe to be the take home points.


–       Agro-economics and the humane treatment of cattle

–       Dietary Saturated Fat

–       Dietary Protein

–       Omega-3 Fatty Acids


Agro-economics and the humane treatment of cattle

As little as 200 years ago the vast majority of beef in this country was raised by free range feeding; cattle were moved from one area of grass to another or fed cut grass in a pasture and finally brought to slaughter at 4-5 years old. Since then we have seen a not so gradual slide toward industrialization and the “farm” has morphed into the “food system”. With the ever-increasing demand for beef and the ever-decreasing price of cereal grains (primarily government subsidized corn) came the notion of factory style farming where the inputs are minimized and outputs are maximized in the pursuit of efficiency (profit). What the incredibly talented farmers found is that via the factory-farming model they were able to reduce the cattle’s time on earth from 4-5 years all the way down to 14 months; pretty incredible right? Alas there is no free lunch, and in the case commercially raised beef the use of grains and confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOS) has led to significant changes in the quality of life for the cattle and meat produced for our consumption. Cows are considered ruminant animals and have evolved to convert GRASS into energy via a complex internal fermentation system. Ruminant animals are not well adapted to eating grains that, due to the high sugar content, overload the fermentation process in the rumen causing myriad health problems for the cattle, which necessitates the constant use of antibiotics. A common thread amongst the CAFOS of the westernized world is the employment of large animal vets which by there own admission would be out of a job if the cattle were allowed grass to eat and some space to move around. Take a quick drive through the central valley of California and you will get the sights and smells of such operations and undoubtedly notice, after reading this anyway, that most of these places are surrounded by corn fields and have sewer ponds larger than some municipalities. It’s the Harris Ranch model: you get feeder calves from grass land up north, feed them the petro-chemically fertilized “Round Up Ready” corn the government paid you to grow right up until they hit market weight, which is about the time they would die from the diet anyway; process their shit in a huge pit, just praying it doesn’t contaminate your well water; then slaughter the beef and ship it out for human consumption.

As you may be able to tell I find this model absurd, but regardless of your view of politics and animal husbandry there are some important health concerns when it comes to eating beef and most of them become irrelevant or significantly reduced when the beef is grass fed. (Advantage: Grass Fed)


Dietary Saturated Fat

Saturated fat is at the heart of many dietary quandaries and you find qualified proponents of both low and high intake for various reasons; I tend to believe that fats and specifically saturated fat have been over vilified by the mainstream. That being said there are legitimate studies connecting the reduction of dietary saturated fat to a reduction in heart disease. Since heart disease is the number one killer in the fire service I feel this is relevant.  From per capita data it can be inferred that the average U.S. citizen consumes 82 g of beef per day, with ground beef (42 %), steaks (20 %), and processed beef (13 %) comprising the bulk of the beef consumed. Ground beef, choice and prime USDA quality steaks and processed beef (hot dogs, lunch meats etc) represent some of the highest total fat and saturated fat sources found in any cuts of beef. An 82 g serving of fatty (22 % fat) ground beef can contain 8.8 g or more of saturated fat, whereas a comparable serving of lean (2.5 % fat) grass fed beef may contain as little as 1.2 g of saturated fat. Hence a daily reduction of up to 7.6 g of saturated fat could be achieved in this scenario by switching from high fat beef to lean grass fed beef. The deal is that the “better” the USDA quality of the meat the more saturated fat it contains (marbling) and the worse it is for your heart. (Advantage: Grass Fed)

Dietary Protein

With regard to protein things can get a little confusing because the statistical difference between protein by volume and protein by % of total energy can skew the numbers significantly so I am going to stick with % of total energy to keep it simple and skewed in the direction of my beliefs. If you consider that food is broken down into three macronutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrate, it might occur to you that meat has a lot of the first two very little of the latter. This would be correct and so the main difference between grass and grain fed beef on the protein front is that an equal serving of grass fed beef has much less saturated fat leaving more “room” for protein. Grass fed beef is about 75% protein by total energy where USDA “Prime” cuts are around 40% by total energy. So what does that mean? Well one of the benefits of a high protein diet is that protein makes you feel full and satisfied. It also increases the sensitivity of leptin signaling which, along with insulin, is your body’s regulatory fat storage hormone. High protein diets have been shown to improve blood lipid profiles, reduce blood pressure, and increase insulin sensitivity. (Advantage: Grass Fed)


Omega-3 Fatty Acids

As I mentioned in the first paragraph cows are supposed to eat grass and when they do they convert a tremendous amount of it into Omega-3 fatty acids (N-3) that eventually make it out into the meat for our consumption. Grass fed beef contains about twice the concentration of N-3 fats that grain fed beef does and you would go a long way toward reaching the recommended daily intake without increasing total calories by choosing grass fed. The other Omega fatty acid issue here is the ratio of Omgea-6 (N-6) to N-3 ratio (N6:N3). In our ancestors it was common to have a ratio of 2:1 and today it is common for Americans to be closer to 20:1. Grass fed beef averages a N-6:N-3 ratio of about 2:1 whereas the same cut of grain fed beef is closer to 10:1. This skewed ratio of N-6 and N-3 fats is partially responsible for the systemic inflammation that is wreaking havoc on your cardiovascular system as you read this and anything you can do to reduce the amount N-6 you eat the better off you will be.  (Advantage: Grass Fed)



Grass Fed Beef is Better… There are a lot of factors both financial and health related that go into the decision to eat grass fed beef over grain fed. Some stores don’t carry it and others have questionable labeling practices so you are not really sure what you are getting. It is worth noting that the ill effects of grain feeding cattle are purely time dependent meaning that the longer the cow is on feed the more drastic the changes in saturated fat and N-6:N-3 ratio so it is generally better to buy “grass fed grain finished” than grain fed. The only suggestions I can make regarding the affordability is to either go in on half a cow with some friends or remove some other expensive things from your diet like hookers and blow.


One Response to Grass Fed vs. Grain Fed Beef

  1. It’s really a cool and helpful piece of information.
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