Grass-fed beef. The food-label phrasing conjures up images of cows grazing on vast green fields, living their best lives. It sounds so clean and natural, so it must be better for you than conventionally raised beef—not to mention better for the animals and the environment, too, right? Well, yes and no. It does have some advantages, but maybe not enough to justify the higher price tag. (Grass-fed beef is typically about 50 percent pricier than conventional beef.) Here, nutritionists weigh in on what exactly the label means, plus what it means for the animal and your health.
What Grass-Fed Beef Means
The term grass-fed means the animal had a diet of nothing but grass and forage, such as hay, its entire life after weaning from its mother’s milk. “These animals are not fed grain at any point, while most other cattle spend their lives in pastures and then are fed grain,” explains Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., creator of BetterThanDieting and author of Read It Before You Eat It. All cows feed on grass to some extent. The difference really comes later on, which is why the terms grass-finished and grain-finished are sometimes used.
The reasons not all cattle are kept on a strict grass-only diet is that it’s pricey and results in lower-weight animals. “It’s hard for ranchers to produce 100 percent grass-fed beef,” says Leslie Bonci, M.P.H., R.D.N., owner of Active Eating Advice. “Grass-fed animals take 20 to 24 months to be ready to go to market, whereas grain-fed animals take only 13 to 15 months. Also, grass-fed animals are lighter in weight and have less meat.”
Why It’s Good
The main nutritional benefit of grass-fed beef is its concentration of healthy fats, specifically omega-3s. “These types of meat may contain two to four times more omega-3 essential fatty acids than grain-fed cows. And we know that most of us don’t get enough of these healthy fats,” Taub-Dix says. It’s also typically leaner than grain-fed beef. This can be an advantage if you’re limiting your fat intake. Some studies have shown that grass-fed meat is also higher in nutrients such as vitamin E and antioxidants. However, Bonci says, “The difference in vitamin E is minuscule. The antioxidants and beta-carotene in grass-fed beef is slightly higher than grain-fed. But it’s better to get these through fruits and vegetables.”
There are better sources of omega-3s, as well. Salmon, for instance, has significantly more fatty-acid content than even grass-fed beef. Plus, Bonci notes, the fatty acids are found in the fat surrounding the meat and the marbling through it. So if you cut off the fat when eating, you won’t reap the benefit anyway.
Some people opt for grass-fed because it’s more sustainable than conventional beef. That may be true, but the difference is slim. A report released last year by the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford in the U.K. found that letting cows feed on pasture versus grain doesn’t make a noticeable impact on the environment. If you’re concerned about your diet’s effect on climate change, a better bet is to cut back on your beef intake altogether.
What to Look For
The label is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture. So if you see “100% grass-fed” on a label, you can rest assured that it has been vetted. Keep in mind that just because beef is raised on a forage diet doesn’t mean it’s necessarily organic. “Cattle that’s 100 percent grass-fed must have access to the pasture for their entire lives, but there are no restrictions on pesticide use on the farm or use of antibiotics,” Bonci says. “Likewise, organic beef can come from cattle that were grain-fed.” If buying organic is important to you, you’ll need to look for the USDA organic seal on the label.
What Are the Drawbacks?
There aren’t any huge downsides to grass-fed beef, but the advantages may not be worth the extra money you’ll spend on it. Any negative connotation associated with a grain diet is more hype than science, Bonci says. “The reality is that all cows graze on pasture, even those that are grain-fed,” she adds. You should also be wary of overpromises of the grass-fed variety’s nutritional value. For instance, Bonci says some people claim it’s higher in vitamin A than conventionally raised beef—but in reality, no beef provides vitamin A.
If you’re opting for grass-fed as a more humane choice for the cattle, note that feeding on fields isn’t necessarily any better for the animals than feeding on grain, Bonci says. “Both grass- and grain-fed animals are treated with the same amount of compassion, humane treatment, and living quarters.”
The Bottom Line
Grass-fed beef has a nutritional advantage over conventionally raised beef, but it’s negligible. “It may be beneficial to choose grass-fed beef over conventional types, but keep in mind that the added value is generally thought to be the food’s omega-3 content. If you’re looking for omega-3s, you may want to try eating more fish instead,” Taub-Dix says. Although the health boost isn’t huge, there’s no real downside besides the bigger price tag. “It is really a matter of personal choice,” Bonci says. “Buy what you can afford, and remember that beef is only one part of the plate.”