Grass-fed or Grain-fed Beef?
Truths About Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef
Beef is a common food choice in the U.S. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 25 billion pounds of beef was consumed in the U.S. in 2012 alone. Beef has a history of being blamed for heart disease and even cancer. Although these negative claims have been made against beef, the amount of consumption does not decrease. However, there has been an increase of consumer awareness of the quality of beef in the supermarkets. It is time to look at some truths about grain-fed and grass-fed beef in order for the consumer to make the ideal choice.
Some of the biggest controversies within the beef industry is the way animals are raised and the use of antibiotics. The use of antibiotics in cattle may be threatening the effectiveness of antibiotics in humans. There have been accounts of antibiotic resistance already beginning to occur. According to Joshua M. Sharfstein, a principal deputy commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who told a U.S. congressional subcommittee, “You actually can trace the specific bacteria around and ... find that the resistant strains in humans match the resistant strains in the animals”(1). Some at the FDA have argued that antibiotic resistance could result from antibiotic use in general, including use by humans and have yet to find firm evidence thatis harmful in humans(2). Concerned consumers are turning to grass-fed beef more often because of the fact that grass-fed doesn’t use antibiotics, where grain-fed does.
Another substance grain-fed beef gets a bad reputation for is the presence of hormones. The addition of hormones speeds growth and allows the cow to reach its desired slaughter weight significantly faster, leading to more revenue for the company and a lower price for consumers. While these hormones produce a larger profit for the cattle industry, Americans may be ingesting them. Although the effects of consuming these hormones are hard to pinpoint, other countries have taken preventative action. The European Union does not allow the use of hormones in farm animals, and have banned hormone added beef imports from the U.S.(3) The FDA and a joint committee of the Food and Agricultural Organization and World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) however, maintain that the amount of hormones that make it into food products is safe for eating (2).
There are also nutritional differences between the two types of beef that need to be taken into consideration. Omega-3s found in grass-fed beef are significantly higher than in grain-fed beef. In fact, grass-fed beef contains between 2-5 times more than grain-fed (4). Grass-fed beef also contains more vitamin A, zinc, iron, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and antioxidants (5). Grain-fed beef may have less of these nutrients, but it is still a good source of all these vitamins and minerals as well. It is not so much about what is in grass-fed beef that makes it popular to some consumers, but it is what is not in it.
There can also be differences in taste. Grass-fed beef is usually leaner and may have some different textures. The higher fatty profile of the grain-fed beef is actually why some consumers prefer it. However, the fat content of grain-fed beef results in a higher caloric value. In fact, a 6-ounce grass-fed beef tenderloin may have 92 fewer calories than the same cut from a grain-fed cow. "If you eat a typical amount of beef per year," Robinson points out in Pasture Perfect, a book about the benefits of pasture-raised animals, "which in the United States is about 67 pounds, switching to grass-fed beef will save you 16,642 calories a year." It would also, if you paid supermarket prices and dined on tenderloin, cost you about $300 more (6).
Price may be the most important factor for consumers when purchasing beef. There is no doubts that beef without the "Grass Fed" label on it will be cheaper. In fact, on average a pound of grain-fed beef is $2.25 less expensive than grass-fed beef (7) . This of course, is a an eye-catcher to a consumer with a tight budget. However, author Michael Pollen points out "What they do not take into account is the invisible costs of antibiotic resistance, environmental degradation, heart disease, E. coli poisoning, corn subsidies, and imported oil" (8). This suggests that on the surface grain-fed may appear cheaper, but in the long run it may not be.
Grain-fed beef is also more accessible than grass-fed. While some people might live close to a farmer's market or Whole Foods Store, others might need to drive long distances to acquire grass-fed beef. Although more mainstream grocery stores are starting to sell some grass-fed beef, the types of cuts are limited as compared to grain-fed.
The debate between grass-fed and grain-fed beef continues, while consumers are at odds with which direction they should go. With the high amount of beef that is consumed in the U.S., it is imperative that the risks and benefits of what we ingest are taken into account. While practical issues such as cost, time, and location play a role in our food choices, safety and sustainability needs are also important factors. Concerning the wellbeing of humanity and our planet in the future, making an informed decision on the type of beef that we consume can have profound consequences.