Not all beef is created — or farmed — equally. The way cows are raised and fed as they grow has major impacts on the nutrition and flavor of the beef. The movement toward sustainable food production sings the praises of grass-fed beef, and the grain-fed beef industry has been under attack by food and animal activists. Beyond the politics of the beef industry are three important factors that often help consumers make their beef purchasing decisions: taste, nutrition and price. What the cows consume as they grow (grain or grass) affects all of these things.
The old practice of letting cows roam free in a pasture is new again. The number of grass-fed beef productions in the United States is growing. Farmers first made the switch from grass to grain feeding many years ago because the cows grew faster consuming grains like corn or soy. This allowed farmers to raise more cattle using less land area for pasture and keep up with the major demand for beef by consumers.
Cows are born in the spring and begin drinking milk from their mother. They are then allowed to feed from a pasture until 7-9 months of age. Cattle intended for grain feeding are then moved to feedlots where they consume grain as they continue to grow until ready for slaughter. Cows gain more weight faster on a grain-based diet. Grass-fed cattle continue consuming grass and plants after the initial 7-9 month growth period. Some grass-fed cattle will be fed a grass-based diet until they are slaughtered for beef. Other grass-fed cattle are fed a finishing diet of grains to gain more weight before slaughter.
In the store, beef packaging may specify a grass or grain-fed diet on the label. Many labels may also include words like pasture-raised, free-range, or grass-finished to indicate a cow's diet and living conditions. Consult your butcher or a list of USDA guidelines for help understanding beef labels.
What cows consume during their lifetime affects the nutritional composition of the beef. The fatty acid composition is the biggest and most notable difference between grass and grain-fed beef. Both types of beef contain similar omega-6 fatty acids, but grass-fed beef contains at least twice as many omega-3s as grain-fed. Grass-fed cattle naturally consume more heart-healthy omega-3s in the grass and clovers they eat. A lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is healthier for your heart. Grass-fed beef is typically leaner and will therefore have less total fat content than grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is a healthier choice overall than grain-fed.
You may notice a difference in look and texture when purchasing grass and grain-fed beef in the store. Grass-fed beef may look darker with less marbling than its grain-fed counterparts. Grass-fed beef may also take on a slightly chewier texture and grassier flavor due to the variation of plants a grass-fed cow consumes. Grain-fed cows consume the same foods and have a more consistent, beefier flavor that you may be used to.
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The biggest difference you may notice between grass and grain-fed beef at the grocery is the price. Grass-fed beef will usually cost more. After all, the farmers do have to pay for all of the pasture land area on which to feed and grow the cattle. The products do vary slightly in flavor and nutrition, but in the end, you decide which variation your family prefers!
Check out the Skinny Mom recipe index for beef recipes your family will love!