The recent growing popularity of organic products has sparked a debate about grass-fed beef benefits versus the price you pay for it.  Is the 2 – 3x supermarket price markup worth it? The bigger issue is more likely the overall health benefits of eating grass fed beef over the conventional grain or corn fed beef.  This article will discuss the differences in how the grass fed and grain fed meats are created, processed and ultimately affect your health.

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 Grass Fed Beef Definition

How cattle are raised will determine the quality and specific makeup of the meat. There are three phases to the process:

Phase 1. This is the infant stage – the calf is born, consumes only milk from its mother and eventually eats grass for the first time in a pasture at 7 – 9 months of age.

Phase 2. This stage is where the type of feeding methods change in the process. This phase will last from the end of phase 1 to just before the slaughter to yield the meat. grass fed beef eat grass from the ground while grain fed will eat a variety or different grains in a lot of cases in an enclosed environment.

Phase 3. This finishing stage is just before harvest which involves rapid growth. Some producers will use grain at this stage even though the cattle have been fed exclusively grass up to this point. This is the time when the cattle increase in weight faster than any other time frame. How they are fed will drastically change the finished product in both weight and quality of meat.

Your local supermarket or butcher shop will offer four types of meat which will vary in exposure to grain.

Veal – this is calf meat from phase 1 above. It has never been fed grain and will be predominantly males as they do not produce milk so are of lower value as adults.
Organic or completely grass-fed beef – cattle that have spent their whole lives in a pasture.
Initially grass fed beef but finished in phase 3 with grain.
Grain fed beef that have been raised in the conventional manner and have not eaten grass in a pasture at all.
This list (not surprisingly) is also in order of most expensive to least expensive.

 The Benefits Of Grass Fed Beef

Unfortunately the research on this topic is fairly limited as it is not a really popular concern to the public. With limited data, we will compare only the two extremes – 100% grass fed beef and 100% grain fed beef.

One research group did a comparison  of grass fed and grain fed beef using  samples from different farms in the continental USA. Having samples collected in this way takes into account the different regions of the country with differing quality of both grass and grains as feed. The meat tested is the same beef that you would find in a supermarket. All of the farms are the suppliers of meat to the local grocery stores, restaurants, burger joints, etc.

The results were not overly surprising – the nutrient profiles of the two types were very similar.

– the fat in grass fed beef is a darker yellow color  possibly due to larger amounts of vitamin A and carotenoids

– slightly less marbling (lines of fat in the meat) in grain fed beef which makes it a little leaner

– a little less unsaturated fats but more omega-3's and saturated fats in grain fed beef (but not by very much)

– the ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats is much lower in grain fed beef at 2.45 compared to 9.6 for grass fed beef. Omega fats are known to have anti-inflammatory properties so the high ratio is much better.

There was a  different study that looked at the effect of using grain in the last two months of cattle development. The findings showed that the longer grain was used, the more saturated fats were produced. This is the opposite of the previous research.  The other results were the same.

Overall, the findings make the two types of meat very similar with only omega fats being better in grass fed beef.

Human Benefits of Grass Fed Beef

We have taken a look at  the research involving the meat itself but what about feeding it to humans and seeing the result?  Another group did a 4 week test where they fed two groups of people beef that was either grass fed or grain fed in the final phase of growth. The subjects underwent blood analysis which showed the grass fed beef group had significantly better levels of omega-3 fats, lower omega-6/omega-3 fat ratio and higher levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is a fish fatty acid that has been shown in research to improve memory and slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease.

Based on these findings, anyone who does not eat very much fish to obtain DHA would benefit from grass fed beef to obtain it, even if the amount is not as significant.

Commercial grain fed beef is notorious for containing antibiotics and artificial hormones as the cattle are treated in captivity. Grass fed beef would help lower the risk of exposure. Testing in this area is quite limited so some of it is speculation.