Grain-Fed Vs. Grass-Fed Beef: What’s the Difference and How Does It Affect the Taste?

Jason Webster
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Why are people obsessed with grass-fed beef?

When most people eat beef, they don’t think about how it was raised. It’s common for people to just visit the local grocery store and pick a cut of ready-made beef. Or they grab the first burger off the dollar menu at their favorite restaurant.

Not all beef is the same. Your beef can be raised on land or in water. It can be humanely raised, or raised in horrific conditions. It can be organic, and it can be injected with hormones and antibiotics. Of the choices our government has to offer, it’s the one that’s typically worst for both human health and the environment that most people choose.

How do you know if you’re buying the most ethical and healthiest beef? You don’t unless you dig a little deeper and ask questions.

What is the main difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?

Cattle eat either grain or grass. The meat, fat, and milk they produce is distinct depending on which diet they are fed.

Grass-fed beef stands out for the rich taste and deep color it has, which comes from carotenoids, a family of chemicals that can also be found in colored vegetables and fruits. Grass-fed beef has been rated as more nutritious for the human body, with higher levels of antioxidants, such as Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and beta-carotene and it’s a good source of the good fatty acids. Grass-fed beef also has lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

On the other hand, grain-fed beef is flashier. Grain-fed beef takes less time to develop so the animals need less space and they are easier to manage. Grains boost lightness in the meat and reduce marbling. In fact, more than 70% of beef consumed in the US is grain-fed.

And despite the fact that it’s a fattier cut, grain-fed beef has less Vitamin E, beta-carotene and Vitamin C than grass-fed beef. Also, grain-fed beef contains more saturated fat, cholesterol, and iron than grass-fed beef.


Vs. Grain-Fed

The process of raising cattle for food is a major cause of greenhouse gases.

In the US and the UK, around 525 million cows are bred to be slaughtered for livestock every year since the demand for beef continues to increase.

Many factors increase the carbon footprint of a cow.

One of these is the land required for raising a cow and for growing the feed for the cows. There are those who believe that this land could be better used to grow vegetables instead.

According to a recent UK report, around a third of land use in England can be attributed to livestock.

Additionally, there are the emissions that are released from the cow’s digestive track, to the transportation of the cows and finally to the consumption of the meat.

Even in terms of overall energy consumption, it is more efficient and economical for the consumer to eat vegetables instead of meat.

Based on these factors, the debate between grass-fed and grain-fed beef is ongoing and the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) have come out with a few rules.

Grass-Fed Beef

What Makes Grass-Fed Beef Different?

The main difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef lies in the feed that the cow is given to increase its weight for slaughter.


Vs. Non-organic Beef: What’s the difference?

Organic beef and grass-fed beef are both growing in popularity.

But do you really know the difference?

Simply put, organic beef is raised in a humane and environmentally-friendly manner. The USDA’s certification of an organic beef tag stands for how the animal was raised, fed, and treated.

More specifically, organic beef is raised free of hormones or antibiotics, free of genetically modified feed and any animal byproduct.

Another form is grass-fed beef. It may seem pretty similar but it does actually have its own distinctions. Grass-fed beef is raised on a grassy pasture and fed a grass-only diet and no grains.

In short:

The differences depend on feed. Organic beef is fed organic feed and grass-fed beef is fed on grass-only diets.

Why is it important to you?

Well, if you are planning to buy a grass-fed or organic product, you should be asking yourself:

How does it affect your health and hence, why it is important to you.

Free-range vs Pasture-fed

In both cases, the cow is still raised at the hands of humans… it’s just that the whole process is quite different.

Free-range beef refers to cows that are fed and raised in land that is not enclosed. This means the cattle can graze on open fields and choose to roam at will not making them confined. The free range package is an alternative to the mass-production of animals and is thus often perceived as the healthier option.

The practices of a free-range farm are often more humane in terms of the whole animal process considering how cattle are often relocated to comfortable enclosures every night.

This is in stark contrast to the pasturing cattle which is a term used for cattle held in a grassy pasture land and fed off grass and other food naturals.

Whether natural grass-fed or free range, the benefits of grass-fed beef lies in the fact that the cattle are raised outdoors which produces healthier beef known for its higher Omega 3 and lower calories.

On the other hand, pasture-fed beef has been shown to have higher fat content and LDL cholesterol which on the other hand is lower-grade.

Grass-finished vs Grain-finished

The importance of time to maturity in beef cattle production

In the traditional beef industry, when cattle reach the end of their finishing period, which in many cases can be as short as 6 months, they are then transported to a feedlot to age for around 120 days. In the last decade a growing market has developed for its direct competitor, grass-fed beef.

In this case, cattle are allowed to graze on pasture for their entire life cycle and are slaughtered at a more mature age of 20-24 months. The difference in the time animals take to reach maturity is the key difference that effects nutritional composition and taste.

A main distinction between grass-fed and grain-fed beef is the amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed beef’s omega-3 levels are two to four times higher than grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef also contains up to ten times more CLA than grain-fed beef.

Another important difference is the amount of saturated fat in these two types of beef. This content is similar in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. The amount of omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed beef, in turn, is higher than in fat of wild animals, and the content of conjugated linoleic acid is higher in grass-fed beef than in lean beef of any other animal.

Raising grass-fed beef vs. grain-fed beef

Anywhere you look today, you will hear buzz words such as, GMO, farm fresh, organic, natural and grass-fed.

Grass-fed beef has been gaining popularity as more and more people are turning to animal-centered diets, and the truth is, grass-fed beef can be quite a bit healthier.

Many commercial cattle producers depend on grains rather than grasses in their feed, as it is cheaper and easier.

Grain-fed meat generally has more fat, less omega-3 fatty acids, and significantly higher saturated fats-considered the worst type of fat for your health.

Excessive consumption could lead to obesity, diabetes and even cancer.

When it comes to grain-fed and grass-fed beef, the latter is lower in calories, higher in protein and omega-3, and lower in total fats and saturated fat.

This is especially true if you consume grass-fed beef less than three weeks prior to processing.

A head to head comparison of grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef shows that grain-fed beef has higher overall omega-6 (pro-inflammatory) and lower overall omega-3s (anti-inflammatory) ratios. The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is a key factor in heart disease and many other diseases.

Is grass-fed beef really better than grain-fed beef?

Your grandmother would have loved it. She grew up a farm girl and wouldn’t think twice about a good, old-fashioned meal of roast beef, potatoes and carrots. But chances are, you’ll have a tough time selling a grass-fed meal like that to the kids of today.

I’m talking specifically about beef … and not about just any old cut of beef, but the good stuff. The kind that’s so tasty that when it’s rare, you can practically cut it with a fork and you might need one to chomp through the raw, gristle-y pieces of fat.

And while grandma would have been busy chopping a carrot into the same oblong-shaped pieces to cook them all together, today’s mother is more likely to be a vegetarian, perhaps preparing carrot sticks the kids love for themselves.

But back to the main point: Is grass-fed beef really better than grain-fed beef? Let’s take a look at the facts, shall we?

The answer lies in a few reasons … the fact that grass-fed cattle are allowed to roam free, the fact that the meat from grass-fed cattle arrives at a slower rate of maturity and, yes, the taste of the meat.

The health benefits of grass-fed beef

Grass-fed beef is generally considered more nutritious and healthier than beef that is finished in a feedlot. Compared to non-grass-fed, grass-fed beef is higher in Vitamin E and other antioxidants. It is lower in unhealthy fats and Omega-6 fat.

Studies suggest that these differences may contribute to a reduced risk of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases.

Personally, I have never been a big fan of conventionally raised meat. I like to know where my food comes from. With conventionally raised meat, you might be eating more chemicals than meat. When cattle are raised in a feedlot, the cattle are usually fed grain and corn. Their diet consists of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism)-fed grains and the animals are injected with hormones to fatten them up quickly.

While non-organic cattle farmers may spray insecticides on the cows, organic ranchers do not use pesticides on their cattle.

However, the most important health benefit of grass-fed beef is that it contains healthy amounts of CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid).

According to research, CLA has been shown to help reduce your risk of various types of cancer, particularly breast and prostate cancer. It also lowers cholesterol, reduces the risk of obesity and helps maintain a healthy body weight.

The health concerns of grain-fed beef

As the debate about grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef gains momentum, the question of what’s the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed beef keeps coming up.

It’s all about the cows and the food they eat!

Cows raised on grain-based diets put on more weight faster and have more marbling (fat within the meat) than cows raised on grass. So if you’re looking for a fine-grained and slightly chewy steak, the grain-fed beef steak is the way to go.

However, all’s not well with grain-fed beef though!

Most grain-fed beef comes from cattle raised in confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs. Hence a big concern of grain-fed beef is that its hormone levels are high, which makes it more susceptible to growth-promoting antibiotics. These are what give grain-fed beef its flavor as well as tenderize it.

While it is true that the more marbled beef tastes better, the reason for its better taste is actually its higher fat content. But the problem is that it also means a much higher cholesterol level!

And since grain-fed beef is richer in fat, the higher proportion of unsaturated fats it contains is inclined to oxidize in the heat of the cooking process.

Environmental benefits

Grass-fed beef comes from cattle that roam freely on pasture eating grass and other natural foods. It differs greatly from beef raised in feedlots on grain.

There are numerous benefits to buying grass-fed beef. For example, grass-fed beef has been shown to have key nutrients including higher concentrations of beneficial omega fatty acids that boost heart health.

Grass-fed beef is also leaner and has no added hormones. What’s more, it contains two to three times more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a type of fat that’s been linked to cancer fighting properties and fat loss.

When cattle are raised on grass, it not only has a positive impact on their nutritional content, but it also reduces destructive greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide.

According to PETA, grass-fed cows produce one-quarter as much methane as cows that are confined in feedlots. Methane is 21 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, according to the leaked IPCC report.

If climate change continues to worsen, we may all have to stop eating meat, dairy and eggs. By choosing grass-fed beef, you are taking an environmentally conscious step. When the world ends there won’t be enough time to wonder if what you ate gave you cancer.

Is it grass-fed more humane?

If you are considering going organic, grass-fed meat is one way to do so. Organic meat is meat from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that the animal was kept on pasture.

But grass-fed animals are usually treated more humanely than animals raised in pens and most of them get to graze on a pasture. Grass-fed cows are also not given any artificial or chemical-based feed.

Their diet consists of lush grass. On an average, grass-fed animals live a healthier, stress-free life. This results in healthier and tastier meat when compared with meat from grain-fed animals.

Does grass-fed beef taste better?

To answer the question straight off the bat, yes! Grass-fed beef tastes better. If it didn’t, farmers would not be so eager to feed their livestock a grass-fed diet. But what exactly makes the difference? How does grass-fed beef taste better?

In terms of nutritional value and potential health benefits, the debate between grain-fed vs grass-fed beef is thick.

Grass-fed beef is known to be healthier and more flavorful than grain-fed beef. But the differences in taste are too subjective for scientists to pin down why exactly grass-fed beef tastes much better than grain-fed beef.

But we all know what we like and what we don’t. So let’s go off the nutritional value and health benefits alone.

Many pro-grain-fed beef studies advocate the benefits of grain-fed cattle. They claim that grain is a good source of energy and that grain-fed beef is more affordable.

Grass-fed beef contains less fat and more protein than grain-fed beef. Its fat is also higher in omega-3 fatty acids which are known to be good for heart health.

Tips for buying and cooking grass-fed beef

The most noticeable difference between grain-fed and grass-fed beef is the taste.

The muscle structure in the grain-fed beef is tougher, and they contain more connective tissue. This can make them harder to chew and digest, especially for those who are not used to eating the meat.

If you buy grass-fed beef and wasn’t raised in a place where such type of meat is common, you need to lower your expectations.

You may find the meat’s taste a bit gamey. That’s because they’re sometimes fed too little corn feed.

You also need to lower your cooking time. When you’re cooking grass-fed beef, you should cook it at a lower temperature for a shorter period.

But with the right preparation, you can still enjoy the beef as much as any other type of beef. First, treat your grass-fed meat like tenderloin to bring out the best texture and flavor. Shave the meat, and sear it either in a sauté pan or a hot grill.

You may also want to add a little bit of fat for extra flavor. The fat makes the steak more tender, and the combination of the high heat and the fat will form a crisper crust.

Look for voluntary certifications

You can also look for “grass-fed beef” or “certified grass-fed beef.” The American Grassfed Association and the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association certify farmers who raise beef and poultry according to their associations’ guidelines, which offer a definition of grass-fed beef, thus helping consumers differentiate grass-fed beef from other beef products.

Because these certifications are voluntary, there is no guarantee that the beef you’re buying is actually grass-fed.

Grass-fed certification ensures that there’s little to no corn in the feed.

This is because grass-fed cows eat grasses and forbs (broad-leaved herbs), not corn and other grains. Corn, in particular, is a cheap source of carbohydrates found commonly in cattle feed, because it’s much less expensive than grass.

The issue with this is that grains, especially corn, lead to higher amounts of fat and calories in the beef you eat.

Moreover, grass-fed cattle are allowed to graze for their entire life, while conventionally-raised cattle may be fed corn and grains for a few months followed by non-gmo soy or cottonseed pellets for the remainder of their lives.

Buy your meat from a craft butcher

It’s becoming more and more popular lately to purchase our meat from a local butcher, that is familiar with the quality of the meat and process of how it’s grown. The butcher knows the farmer that raised it.

Chances are it’s been pasture raised without the use of pesticides or antibiotics. And it’s grass-fed (as opposed to grain-fed), of higher quality.

This means it’s healthier for you, tastes better and will put more flavour in your recipes, without any additives.

Add a little extra fat

You’d think that grass-fed beef would be more tender than its grain-fed counterpart, but that’s not the case. All of the animals’ fat needs to be removed to allow marinades and sauces to sink into the meat, so fat content is fairly similar in the two cuts.

On the other hand, there is more flavor in grass-fed beef. Essentially, the forage they eat is richer in taste component precursors. In fact, the flavor of beef is directly linked to the diet of the cattle; and the more it can eat, the more fat and flavor its meat will have.

Comparing grain-fed and grass-fed beef is like comparing apples and oranges and its true that grass-fed beef is a tad more expensive than grain-fed beef. However, its flavor makes it worth the price. It is well-known that fat is flavor. And the more flavor the meat has, the more tender it will be.

Grass-fed beef doesn’t have the “gamey” flavor that people sometimes have to get used to when eating their first grass-fed steak. And it’s also very tender, even if you order it well-done.

Keep your thermometer handy

Ever heard these recommendations for cooking a perfect steak?

  • Never stab the meat with a fork
  • Let it rest for a few minutes before serving
  • Don’t let it get cold
  • Don’t cook it more than medium-rare

The reason for this is that temperature is crucial in cooking meat well.

What you want is a red center, yet not overcooked and tough. Not an easy task as it requires an experienced hand from the cook and a bit of trial and error on behalf of the diner.

Cooking meat at the right temperature is just as important as how you cook it. A thermometer is your best friend. Its one and only purpose in life is to make sure your food is cooked properly.

Cooking meats at the right temperature ensures that they are cooked at the core while retaining a certain amount of moisture on the outside, that they don’t dry out or overcook.

Another benefit of knowing the doneness of your meat is that it lets you prevent the “oops” moments. For example, if the thermometer registers 160ºF, you know that it doesn’t need to be cooked more as that temperature means that the meat is overcooked and dry.

The Perfect Burger: Temperature and Grilling Guide

The question is often asked, “Where’s the best place to pan sear a burger?”

The answer is always the same: on a well-seasoned, hot, and preferably, black-cast iron griddle or skillet. This method can achieve that extra degree of caramelization, or Maillard reaction, that helps create that “heavyweight champion” burger.

If we are talking about the grill, then there is no dispute…a properly seasoned and grilled burger patty is another delicious way to enjoy a beef burger. But it all boils down to personal preference.

And don’t forget about the toppings! Fresh lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and crisp pickles on a soft toasted bun will do nicely.

I don’t know about you, but I do like my burger well done. The right cooking temperature can sometimes be a bit of a challenge regardless of what cooking surface you use.

For the stove top method a common method is to create a cheat sheet with temperatures for various parts of the burger.