One of my favorite activities from the back of a horse is helping my son-in-law with his cattle. This time of year as the cold weather sets in, he moves them from a far pasture to one closer to the barn. Then when the snow begins to fly, he supplements their grass diet with extra calories and protein from hay and grain.
What’s interesting is that these contented cows, that spend most of their lives grazing on pasture grass, are not considered grass-fed, according to the official definition by the United States Department of Agriculture. In order for beef to be marketed as “grass-fed,” says the USDA, the animal can be fed strictly grass or hay (no grain) throughout life, except for the milk they get from their moms at birth.
It’s a distinction we need to understand since many people assume that only meat labeled “grass-fed” comes from cows fortunate enough to be raised on pasture grass. In reality, say cattle experts, all cattle are grass-fed most of their lives. What differentiates meat labeled “grass-fed” from other meat is how cattle are fed during their last few months of life.
Meat labeled “grass-fed” means the animal was exclusively fed grass or hay until it became steak. Other cattle finish their final days on hay supplemented with local plant and grain products. That’s why some experts use the terms “grass-finished” or “grain-finished” to describe these two ways of producing meat.
Nutritionally, both methods produce meat that is rich in high quality protein, B-vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and selenium. Some minor nutritional differences do exist, however.
Some studies have found slightly higher amounts of healthful omega-3 fats in grass-finished beef and more of the healthful monounsaturated fats in grain-finished meat. Grass-finished beef may also be higher in vitamin E and another healthful fat called CLA than its grain-fed counterpart, according to beef nutrition experts.
What about flavor? Taste panels report that grass-finished meat has a more distinct grass-like flavor that may or may not be acceptable to some people. And depending how it is prepared, grass-fed beef may be less tender than traditional corn-fed varieties.
Why isn’t more beef fed raised strictly on grass and hay? One reason is that it takes more time, land and water to produce meat this way. That’s why much of the meat that is entirely grass-fed now comes from countries that have vast areas of grassland like Australia and New Zealand.
Bottom line: All lean beef is a nutrient-dense food that can be included into an overall healthful diet. And according to beef experts, there are currently 29 cuts of beef — both grass-fed and traditionally raised — that meet the current USDA definition for lean meat. The choice is ours.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.