Grass-Fed Vs Grain-Fed Beef – Which Is Better?

imagesGrass-fed beef has been marketed hard lately and most consider it to be vastly superior to grain-fed beef. Among the most common stated reasons are because grass-fed beef has a better nutritional profile and the cows aren’t given hormones making them more natural and thus better for you. Using logic it would make sense, it’s just common sense right? Well if you’ve been reading my material for any decent amount of time you know by now I don’t believe in common sense. So let’s take a closer look.

The first thing I’d like to take a look at is lipid profiles shown in research by Leheska et al. (2008.) When breaking down the lipid profiles of grain-fed vs. grass-fed beef they following difference were discovered:

Saturated fatty acids – Grass-fed 50.9 grams, Grain-fed 44.5 grams.

Monounsaturated Fat – Grass-fed 39.2 grams, Grain-fed 47 grams.

Omega 3’s – Grass-fed .88 grams, Grain-fed .24 grams.

Omega 6’s – Grass-fed 1.85 grams, Grain-fed 2.20 grams.

Taking a look at those numbers it would appear grain-fed actually has more of the “good” fats and less of the “bad” fats although grass-fed has slightly less total fat. Where grass-fed had the big advantage was in omega-3’s which are absolutely a good thing. grass-fed-beefHowever when you look at the overall picture the difference between the two is not that great. I’d give a slight advantage to grass-fed because of the omega-3’s. (1)

In a review of several studies looking at the fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef the results are clear. Grass-fed is higher in CLA, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals as well as omega-3’s. Of course there is a wide variation in the studies especially depending on what kind of breed was used. For instance when crossbred steers were used in 2009 by Alfaia et al. grass-fed had about double the CLA as grain-fed. When using Angus steers in 2006 Ponnampalam et al. showed grain-fed actually had slightly higher CLA. However for the most part CLA and omega-3 was higher in grain-fed in the majority of studies. (2)

Besides the nutritional profile the other thing that comes into play, and it seems to be a big one for many, is the hormones used in grain-fed cows. Grain-fed beef is often implanted with growth-promoting hormones to help increase the efficiency of the feed being converted to muscle. These hormones are tested and approved by the FDA before they are available to producers.

UnknownLet’s talk about one of the most common hormones implanted, estrogen. A serving of beef contains .3 billionths of a gram of estrogen which is over 50,000 times lower than the FDA allows. When comparing estrogen in grass-fed and grain-fed beef the difference is minimal to say the least. A 3 ounce serving of grass-fed beef has 1.3 nanograms of estrogen in comparison to 1.9 nanograms in grain-fed. To put into perspective just how insignificant that is 4 ounces of raw peas has 454 nanograms of estrogen, 4 ounces of raw cabbage has 2,700 nanograms of estrogen, and if you are really worried about those hormones make sure you never use soybean oil as a 3 ounce serving of that contains 168,000,000 nanograms of estrogen. Surely that would kill you instantly.

Obviously I’m not buying the hormone argument but I won’t judge anyone who wants to stay away from anything because it was given hormones. I do, however, fully support that the nutritional profile of grass-fed beef is greater than grain-fed, but I think the difference is minimal and for there to be a significant difference the amount you would need to eat would make the omega-3 content the last thing you need to worry about.

grass-vs-grain-fed-meatNow the real question becomes because you are getting higher levels of some nutrients in grass-fed does it make it worth the extra money? After all if you haven’t noticed grass-fed beef comes at a pretty hefty price. The answer really comes down to what’s important to you and how much you are willing to spend. In my opinion I don’t think spending that much extra money for an extra .6 grams of omega-3’s and a couple more grams of CLA is worth it. If you don’t have the extra money I don’t see any reason to believe you are negatively impacting your health by choosing grain-fed beef. If you don’t mind spending the extra money grass-fed beef will give you a slightly better product.

This article was written and researched by Colin DeWaay

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8 comments for “Grass-Fed Vs Grain-Fed Beef – Which Is Better?

  1. Brian Klein
    May 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Nutritionally speaking, everything I’ve seen about grass-fed beef is like what you say, and that it is marginally better than grain-fed beef. But I have heard that grain-fed beef is usually full of toxins that are stored in the fat, and since grass-fed cattle are likely in a better environment, they would have less toxins. Did you happen to run across that in any of your research? That might be a reason to lean towards grass-fed, or at least for leaner cuts of grain-fed.

    I personally usually eat grass-fed. My reasons for sticking to mainly grass-fed beef have more to to with environmental and ethical concerns. Producing grain fed beef is a very carbon intensive operation, while producing grass-fed beef is a very carbon negative operation. (search for Allan Savory’s TED talk to learn more.) Plus grass-fed cattle get to roam around all day, while grain-fed are usually in cramped CAFO lots (at least in the last 6 months), leading a pretty pitiful existence.

    (My comments are made assuming that a grass-fed producer is doing so in a clean environment and actually following guidelines on a strict grass-fed operation.)

    One way to save money on grass-fed beef would be to order a side of it and store it in a freezer. I never buy it from the store because it’s way overpriced. But buying a side is still more expensive the conventional beef from a store.

    • May 13, 2014 at 2:39 pm

      Hey Brian,

      I’ve been talking with some others about some of these things you brought up on social media. Regarding the ethical and environmental reasons or many say purely for taste, I can totally understand why some would go that route. Of course that’s not where I was going with this article, it was purely based on nutrition.

      I did not see anything about toxins stored in the fat of grain-fed beef and did a quick search after reading your comment and did not find anything, but admittedly didn’t spend a ton of time trying either.

      I will likely be following up this one with Doug’s question about chickens/eggs and may address some of that.

      • Brian Klein
        May 13, 2014 at 3:00 pm

        RE: Toxins. I believe Tim Ferris talks about it in The 4-Hour Body, and I’ve seen it numerous times in various blogs about nutrition, but do not have any specific studies to point you towards. I will do so if I come across one.

        • May 13, 2014 at 7:25 pm

          Please do let me know if you find it. A lot of people talk about things and preach them, but it’s not always backed up by data. If it’s there, however, I would love to see it. Thanks!

  2. May 12, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    Great article, Colin! There really is less difference than most would have you believe – people are forever blowing things out of proportion in order to support their personal lifestyle, so kudos to you for basing your articles on actual research! As to the comment on protein requirements for strength athletes, most studies I’ve seen put .8gm/lb as the minimum – the range seems to be .8 to 1.2 gm depending on the individual. Would be interested in seeing a similar comparison for chickens & eggs, since I have a lot more of those than beef in my diet…

    • May 13, 2014 at 11:04 am

      Thanks Doug. I may have to see what I can find. 🙂

  3. May 12, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Anon you are certainly welcome to you opinion but basing your opinion because something just makes sense in your mind with no real data to back it up is the very definition of bro-science. I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me grass-fed is THAT much better but if I’m shown data that shows it’s far superior my opinion can be changed. I’m not attached to any idea I simply look at the research. If you can show me how people who consume grass-fed over grain-fed have better cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. (you know, measures of health…) I’m all ears.

    As for .8 grams per pound, there is definitely research supporting that to be pretty close, however, that doesn’t change how much protein we need to consume and that doesn’t change from grass-fed to grain-fed so just eating less isn’t a viable option.

  4. Anonymous
    May 12, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Grass fed is infinitely better than grain fed, grocery store grade beef. A grazing cow is a healthy animal whereas a feed lot, factory farmed cow subjected to unnatural conditions is not. You can measure the nutritive value but you can’t measure health. As far as cost is concerned, eat less. The amount of meat eaten by most is overkill. Look at protein requirements for strength training athletes. The maximum is .8 grams per pound.

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