Grass- versus Grain-fed beef. Does it make a difference?

Reducing meat consumption is a great way to help your health and the environment. But when you do indulge in a juicy steak, what’s better – grass or grain-fed beef? Does it matter?

Cows are typically fed either grass, grain, soy or corn. Although not technically correct, for ease of writing, when I say grain I am referring to grain, soy and corn, which are said to all have similar effects on cows. Animals were first fed grain when factory farming, or large feedlots, began popping up. Cows were switched to grain for convenience and cost. Grain-fed cows don’t need a pasture and, therefore, can be crammed together in small spaces, increasing production and profit per square foot. Grain, corn and soy are also much cheaper feeds. Unfortunately, grain isn’t the only component of this type of feed. Cheap fillers, such as animal parts and stale pastry may also be included as a way to cut costs.

Mass production of animals and meat leads to lower food prices and higher profit for companies. When we buy factory-farmed meat as a society, we are essentially buying bulk. So what’s wrong with cheaper food? Nothing, in an of itself, but when you look a bit closer into the costs that aren’t calculated into the price at the grocery store, we find that there is actually a substantial cost to this type of food. Impact on the environment and our health all have an associated cost.

The argument for grass-fed beef often refers to the fact that the digestive systems of cows works most efficiently when digesting grass, not grain. However, these days, most cows are grain-fed. So cows weren’t intended to eat grain… Does that mean it’s necessarily worse if they do?

Taste differences

The flavor of beef is said to be quite different depending on the type of feed. For those who just want the juiciest, tastiest piece of meat, perhaps you want a steak from a grain-fed cow. Grain-fed cows produce the fattiest meat, and since fat contributes immensely to taste… well, you get the picture. But not everyone agrees. Despite the lower fat content, lovers of grass-fed beef say the flavor of the meat is much more pronounced. The split of people who prefer one or the other is said to be about 50/50.

Unfortunately, there are some things to consider other than taste. For instance, with grain feeds, there are some downsides for the cow. Grain feed is not nutritionally or biologically ideal for a cow. Since the digestive systems of cows don’t handle grain well, this diet (which is high in starches and low in fibre) can result in lots of bloating and discomfort for the animal. This is referred to as “feed lot bloat”. Grain-fed cows can also develop something called “acidosis”. Acidosis is caused by an overproduction of acids from digestion of grain, and can be a serious and painful condition. It can also weaken the immune system, which makes the animals more susceptible to bacterial infections and illnesses and increase the need for antibiotics.

Because the grain is lacking in nutrition, these cows are often also fed a slew of other supplements and additives which can include things like ammonium sulfate, blood meal, bone meal, defluorinated phosphate, fat from poultry, meat meal, and other nasty sounding ingredients.

Nutritionally speaking

Studies have shown that the nutritional content of beef is largely influenced by an animal’s feed. Grass-fed beef is a bit better for you in terms of the fat composition. Meet from grain-fed animals has been found to be higher in total and saturated fat, cholesterol and Calories, and lower in vitamin E, CLA (shown to have some health benefits ) and healthy omega-3 fats. If you only eat meat on occasion, this difference likely won’t affect you much, but if meat is a staple in your diet, this could potentially make a difference to you.

How does this affect the environment? Probably in more ways than you think.
The energy, water, fuel, and pesticides used to grow and transport the feed all impact the environment negatively. Areas of rain forests are also being torn down in order to grow corn and soybeans to feed cattle. Raising large numbers of animals in relatively small spaces can also lead to health issues from ground and water pollution. The large amounts of manure are often not properly disposed of, saturating the ground. However, grass-fed beef isn’t completely without it’s downsides. Just because a package says “grass-fed” does not mean the meat is organic.


It appears that grass-fed beef certainly has a bit of a leg up in every department except (arguably) taste. So what’s a meat eater to do? It depends what your priorities are. Cost, health, environmental sustainability and taste all play a role in your choice. I think you all know where I stand. I’d rather pay a bit more for higher quality and eat it less.


Beef choices and the environment – grain or grass fed?
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” – Michael Pollan