You’ve likely seen grocery stores and restaurants offer “grass-fed beef” but if you haven’t been crystal clear on what this term means exactly, you’re not alone.
Does it mean the cattle spent their entire life eating only grass?
Does it really matter if the cattle was grass fed AND grain fed?
As a responsible meat eater, why should you care about purchasing red meat with this designation? What makes it so special?
Read on to understand:
- Exactly what grass-fed beef is
- 3 terms that matter MORE than grass-fed
- The 5 health benefits of eating grass-fed and grass-finished beef
- The environmental benefits of regenerative farming
What is Grass-Fed Beef?
“Grass-fed beef” only means the beef on your plate came from cattle that was fed grass at some point in its life.
Was that cow fed only grass for their entire life? Did it eat grass initially and then corn and soy for the remainder? With the label “grass-fed beef” you can’t really be sure.
Although still widely used, back in 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture revoked the official labeling standard for grass-fed meat. This means the USDA no longer recognizes or confirms the designation.
This reversal upset a lot of people, to say the least.
Responsible farmers and consumers saw the removal of the term as a blow to meat quality standards and transparency in food production.
With the removal of the official designation, any meat operation can now add “grass-fed beef” to their packaging label and there’s no requirement for them to validate that claim. This makes intentional meat consumption far more difficult than it once was.
But don’t be discouraged!
There’s still a way for you to determine the quality of the meat you’re serving your family. Keep reading!
3 Terms That Matter Way More Than Grass-Fed
Our strongest recommendation for anyone looking to enhance the quality of the meat you eat and serve your loved ones is to instead look for terms like this:
This is beef that was fed grass throughout its entire life – start to finish. Ideally, the meat producer will also confirm that the cattle was fed absolutely NO grains or grain byproducts.
Often synonymous with grass-finished, this refers to cattle that were raised outdoors on open pasture - just as nature intended.
All of the above. This also refers to pasture-raised farming principles like rotational grazing, no-till methods, minimal/no use of pesticides and chemicals, and ethical animal welfare practices.
Grass Roots is proud to say that 100% of our animals are grass-finished, pasture-raised, and regeneratively-raised. Learn more about how we raise animals.
Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
Below, we’ll unpack the numerous health and environmental benefits of eating grass-finished and grass-fed cattle.
First, we’d like to discuss an often overlooked implication of switching to grass-fed beef instead of continuing to eat meat from a conventional feed lot, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs): The well-being of the farmers.
Some of the dangers and risks associated with CAFOs include:
1. Physical and chemical hazards Feedlots expose farmers to dangerous chemicals (harsh pesticides, industrial-strength cleaning agents, antibiotics, and synthetic hormones), which presents significant health risks.
2. Animal handling risks
In CAFOs, farmers are tasked with managing large numbers of animals in close quarters. This can involve excruciating physical labor and an increased likelihood of injuries such as bites, kicks, or being pinned against fences/equipment due to the reactivity of tightly-penned animals.
3. Exposure to airborne contaminants
CAFOs are known to generate a considerable amount of dust, and gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which can cause eye and respiratory problems when inhaled in high concentrations.
4. Disease transmission
Due to the high density of animals in feedlots, farmers in CAFOs are at a higher risk of contracting zoonotic diseases from the animals.
5. Mental health challenges
Intensive farming practices like CAFOs often present challenges (managing large herds, long working hours, financial pressures, intense physical demands) that fuel stress and mental health issues among workers and farmers.
5 Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
In addition to the health benefits that farmers experience when raising cattle in a grass-fed and grass-finished operation (namely, the absence or significant reduction of all the concerns listed above), studies show we receive several health benefits from eating grass-fed and grass-finished meat, including:
1. Lower fat content
Grass-fed and grass-finished beef generally has fewer unhealthy saturated fats and a lower total fat content than grain-fed beef, which is reported to reduce the risk of heart disease.
2. More minerals, vitamins and antioxidants
Meat from grass-fed cows is often richer in vitamins like E, B12 and B6, minerals like selenium, iron and zinc, and antioxidants like beta-carotene that potentially improve heart health.
3. Improved Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio
Grass-fed beef has a more favorable ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. This balance matters because overconsumption of Omega-6 fatty acids has been associated with inflammation and various health issues.
4. Increased CLA content
Grass-fed beef is a good source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fatty acid that supports immune function and is believed to have anti-cancer properties.
5. No added hormones or antibiotics
In conventional feed lots, cattle are often treated with high doses of antibiotics to combat the effects of a grain-based diet, which cuts costs but creates major digestive problems for cows. Conversely, grass-fed and grass-finished beef is typically produced according to regenerative agriculture principles, which rejects the use of synthetic hormones or antibiotics.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Better for the Environment?
Again, it’s important to remember that “grass-fed beef” can mean any number of things, so it’s difficult to determine whether beef labeled that way is indeed better for your health or the environment.
Instead, look for terms like:
- Regenerative farming
A farming operation that labels its meat as grass-fed AND any one of the terms above is most definitely better for the environment. Here’s why:
1. Fewer greenhouse gas emissions
Grass-finished beef production generally produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to beef from conventional feedlots. Additionally, grass-finished operations have been found to promote carbon sequestration in the soil, which also offsets emissions.
2. Less water consumption and contamination
Pasture-based systems rely on natural rainfall and grazing, reducing the need for the extensive irrigation often associated with growing feed crops for confined cattle. Additionally, the substantial amount of animal waste produced on CAFOs (often containing pathogens, antibiotics, hormones, and excess nutrients) is known to pollute water sources. Grass-finished operations do the opposite.
3. Improved soil health
Pastured or regeneratively-farmed operations often employ rotational grazing practices that let the land rest in between cycles of grazing. This allows the soil to recover with rejuvenated organic matter content and nutrient cycling.
4. Fewer agrochemicals
Conventional feedlots have to rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, in pasture-based systems, cattle graze on natural forage, which usually eliminates the need for chemical inputs and the resulting pollution from agrochemical runoff.
5. Healthy biodiversity
The well-managed grasslands of grass-finished beef production increase biodiversity levels, a significant factor in overall ecosystem health. The native grasses in a grass-finished operation provide habitat for various wildlife, including birds and insects.
Does Grass-Fed Beef Taste Better?
As compared to conventional grain-fed beef, the flavor of grass-finished beef is often described as earthy, herbaceous, or slightly gamey. It also tends to have a leaner texture with less marbling that some people say makes the taste “cleaner.”
Of course, taste is subjective. Our #1 suggestion is to find a high quality source of grass-fed and grass-finished beef, and try it for yourself!
Experiment with a few cuts and cooking methods to see what your personal preference is.
Start with one of our grass-fed and grass-finished steaks or Grass Roots ground beef - a customer favorite.