Is Grass-Fed Beef Better? Here's Everything You Need To Know

Here are five tips and tricks for selecting the best red meat.

When it comes to red meat, quality is crucial. In search of top-notch beef, most health-conscious consumers look for a "grass-fed" label. Here's what you need to know about the grass-fed label to select the best burgers, steaks, and jerky.

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Grass-Fed Beef vs. Grain-Fed Beef

The terms "grass-fed" and "grain-fed" refer to the types of nutrition given to cows. Grass-fed beef refers to meat from cattle that were raised eating grass.

Most cattle are grain-fed. Grain-fed cows eat grass early in life but later eat specially formulated feed based on grains. They are also given supplements such as hormones and antibiotics.

Cattle Feeding Standards

For federally inspected meat products, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidance indicates that grass-fed cattle have only been fed milk, grass, and other greens throughout their lives.

Grass-fed cattle are also given continuous access to pastures during the growing season. In contrast, grain-fed cows are often kept in feedlots and have less access to land. In feedlots, grain-fed cattle are more prone to heat exhaustion.

Keep in mind there's no USDA marketing claim for grass-fed meat. Moreover, some producers use a partial label, so certain meats labeled as "grass-fed" could be from cattle that spent a relatively short time eating grass. When possible, look for a label that says "100% grass-fed."

Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef

Grass-fed beef is typically leaner than its conventional counterpart. Leaner meats are better for your heart. Since grain-fed beef tends to have more saturated fat than grass-fed beef, grain-fed beef may pose a greater risk to your heart, at least when eaten in excess.

Moreover, grass-fed beef is higher in key nutrients, including vitamins and a beneficial fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that's been tied to improved immunity and anti-inflammation benefits. Grass-fed beef also contains more antioxidants than grain-fed beef, which may lower your risk of diseases from heart disease to certain cancers.

Plus, grass-fed beef packs more omega-3 fatty acids than standard beef. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for heart health and may also promote cognitive function. Keep in mind, though, that the amount of omega-3s found in grass-fed beef is still far lower than the total omega-3s found in fatty fish like salmon.

Downsides of Grass-Fed Beef

Grass-fed beef has a unique flavor and texture, which may be an upside or downside, depending on your preferences. It may also need to be cooked differently.

The risks of grass-fed beef are similar to those of grain-fed beef. Whether your meat is grass-fed or grain-fed, you need to prepare it properly to avoid food-borne illness.

Eating too much meat has been associated with certain cancers. Although less than grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef does contain some saturated fat. In excess, saturated fat can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke. Therefore, eating in moderation is key.

Perhaps the biggest downside of grass-fed beef is the cost. Grain-fed beef tends to be more affordable than grass-fed beef. This is because grain-fed cattle are given growth hormones and reach their target slaughter weight a year faster than grass-fed cattle. As a result, grain-fed cattle are typically less expensive to raise—and therefore less expensive to buy.

Grass-Fed Beef vs. Organic Beef

The USDA standards for organic beef specify that the animals cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics and must be given access to the outdoors and organic, vegetarian feed. However, that feed can include grains, which aren't part of a cow's natural diet.

It is possible to find beef that's both grass-fed and organic, though it tends to be pricey.

Tips for Eating Red Meat

Remember that moderation is important. Because of the link between red meat and colorectal cancer, the American Institute for Cancer Research suggests capping your weekly intake at 18 ounces.

If you typically enjoy a three-ounce serving of cooked beef (about the size of a deck of cards), that means six servings a week. Keep in mind, though, that half-pound burgers are eight ounces, and steaks are generally larger.

When purchasing grass-fed beef, it's worth finding out how specific farms operate. For example, if you're buying from a farmer's market, ask if the cows are given any hormones or antibiotics and if their grass or greens are organic. If you're purchasing a particular brand in a store, pull out your phone and visit their website, which should provide the same kind of information.

Whether you're buying grass-fed or grain-fed beef, opting for lean meats is best. The leanest beef tends to be labeled loin or round. Beef sirloin, flat-iron steak, and lean ground beef are some of the most affordable options.

Generally, 95% extra lean ground beef is the healthiest choice for hamburgers and meatloaf. If your ground beef is less than 90% lean, pouring off the fat after browning is a good idea.

Finally, be sure to pair your red meat with nutrient-rich whole foods. Instead of piling cheese and bacon on your burger in a white flour bun, wrap the meat in romaine leaves and top it with tomato, red onion, and avocado.

Serve it with even more veggies (vinegar-based slaw, for example, or broccoli sautéed in EVOO) and a healthy starch, like a side of black beans or a baked sweet potato. These kinds of combos are the best way to enjoy grass-fed beef as part of an overall healthy eating pattern, which is key to disease prevention and wellness.

A Quick Review

Grass-fed beef comes from cattle that were raised eating grass and not grain. It tends to be leaner and more nutritious than grain-fed beef but is often more expensive. Like other meats, it should be cooked properly and eaten in moderation.

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