Grain-Fed Vs. Grass-Fed Beef: What’s the Difference and How Does It Affect the Taste?

Grass Fed Cow on pasture

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The term “Grass-Fed” is thrown around a lot at the moment.

It’s easy to understand why. “Grass-fed’ sounds like the animal lived a happy life in a field while “grain-fed” gives you images of crowded feedlots.

If you want to learn the real differences between grain and grass-fed beef, including the health benefits, the environmental impact, and most importantly to us, the difference in the taste and texture of the meat, keep reading.

Why are people obsessed with grass-fed beef?

There are lots of good reasons why people are becoming invested in exactly where their beef comes from.

For some people, the main issue is the environmental impact of animal rearing and the potential health concerns of consuming mass-reared meat.

Others just want to ensure they buy the best tasting beef possible.

In response to this, the beef industry has gone through a period of diversification.

While the vast majority of beef still comes from grain-fed “feedlot” animals, organic, free-range, and pasture-fed options are becoming more common.

This has been helped with the rise in craft butchers providing consumers with more choice.

What is the main difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?

The American meat market consumed 103.1 billion pounds of meat and poultry in 2019 alone.

To produce enough cattle to feed the masses, beef needs to be raised fat and quickly. Feeding cattle with corn is a great way to do this, hence the “grain-fed” tag.

As Michael Pollan puts it,

What gets a beef calf from 80 to 1,200 pounds in 14 months are enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements — and drugs, including growth hormones. These ”efficiencies,” all of which come at a price, have transformed raising cattle into a high-volume, low-margin business.”

Grass-fed beef is the somewhat ambiguous term given to cattle fed largely on grass.

It’s generally leaner than grain-fed, with a chewier texture and a broader taste pallet reflecting the specific place it was raised.

It is also usually more expensive than grain-fed beef because it can take a farmer up to a year longer (and an extra year’s worth of food, care, and labor) to get a grass-fed animal to reach slaughter weight than for a conventionally raised one.

While grain-fed is a very well defined term, grass-fed is not and is often confused with terms like organic, free-range, or pasture-fed.

To clear things up, here is a breakdown of exactly what these terms mean:

Grass-fed

Grass-fed beef doesn’t have a certification body or a legal definition. Even feedlot cattle are raised on grass for the first six months of their lives, so a grass-fed label on your beef is not an indication it spent its entire life in a pasture. 

The best way to ensure that the beef you are buying is 100% grass-fed is to research the producer or look for voluntary certifications like Certified Humane or Pasture for Life.

Organic

Beef marked as organic can be grass-fed or grain-fed or even a mixture of both. The organic classification only means that the animals have been raised with no antibiotics or growth hormones. 

It also means that animal feed has been produced without the use of what the USDA calls “conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”

Since the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) established mandatory certification of organic production, inspectors from the National Organic Program (NOP) regularly inspect organic beef producers to make sure they keep to these standards.

Free-range vs Pasture-fed

Unfortunately, there are no legal definitions for terms like free-range, pasture-raised, or pasture-fed when it comes to beef and no certification body for them.

The term free-range is not certified for beef by the USDA in the same way that it is for chickens.

Most beef cattle are raised outside for at least part of their lives, which can make defining terms like free-range challenging. 

However, many producers who humanely raise cattle, allowing them a large amount of space to range and a natural diet of grass, operate with a level of transparency in their rearing methods or sign up to voluntary certification by groups like Humane Farm Animal Care

Until legal definitions for terms like free-range and pasture-fed are created, you may have to do a little background research to make sure your idea of free-range or pasture-fed lines up with the raising methods of your chosen producer.

Grass-finished vs Grain-finished

Grain-finished animals are fed a high grain diet over the last 18 months before they are slaughtered. Grain finishing increases the amount of intramuscular fat and gives the meat a buttery flavor.

Beef advertised as “grass-finished” often means the animal’s diet was switched to hay just before it was slaughtered.  This switch to hay often has more to do with reducing the levels of E. coli in its manure than anything else.

Raising grass-fed beef vs. grain-fed beef

Understanding the difference between these ‘labels’  requires little more knowledge on how beef cattle are typically raised and how these new alternatives differ from that traditional process.

The most common way of producing beef in the US is through concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also called feedlots.

These sprawling industrial farms keep cattle in confined stalls and rapidly fatten them up with carbohydrate-rich corn, growth accelerants, and antibiotics.

Not surprising, then, that feedlots have been the target of animal activists and environmental protesters in recent years

Pollan, in his article Power Steer, echoes this sentiment, as he describes the feedlot he visited as “a kind of city, populated by as many as 100,000 animals. It is very much a premodern city, however — crowded, filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads and choking air.”

The corn diet, coupled with the limited movement allowed by the feedlot, means that by 14 months old an average beef steer will weigh 1,200 pounds, and its meat will be smoothly textured and well-marbled.

While the term “grass-fed” doesn’t have any particular guidelines associated with it, those producers committed to raising properly grass-fed animals allow them to range over pastures, consuming grass, herbs, flowers, clover, and other legumes.

Image courtesy of Crowd Cow

The extra mobility of these cattle means the meat is a little leaner, a little less consistent in flavor and texture than grain-fed beef and, because grass-fed cows tend to be slaughtered in autumn rather than all year round, more expensive.

Is grass-fed beef really better than grain-fed beef?

Choosing grass-fed beef is better for the environment, and also has particular health benefits. When it comes to taste, it is slightly more subjective, but there are some very distinct differences in taste as texture compared to grain-fed beef. 

The health benefits of grass-fed beef

A study in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicated that grass-fed beef had significantly more omega 3 fatty acids and a higher antioxidant content while also being leaner, and therefore healthier than grain-fed beef.

Grass-fed also has elevated levels of glutathione and superoxide dismutase, both of which are thought to help fight cancer, and lower cholesterol-elevating fatty acids. 

The more varied diet of grass-fed animals also results in higher levels of vitamin and minerals, particularly vitamins A and E, and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, and potassium.

We don’t pretend to be health experts though. This article on healthline.com explores the evidence to see if grass-fed beef is healthier.

The health concerns of grain-fed beef

One of the major concerns with the feedlot system of cattle breeding is the increased presence of disease caused by stress and an unnatural diet.

Disease is often treated with a regular intake of antibiotics, even when the animal isn’t sick, which many consumers are becoming more concerned about.

As Pollan puts it:

Public-health advocates don’t object to treating sick animals with antibiotics; they just don’t want to see the drugs lose their efficacy because factory farms are feeding them to healthy animals to promote growth.”

The addition of growth hormones in cattle is also considered a potential health risk, with scientists linking it to falling sperm counts, premature maturation in girls, and abnormal sex characteristics in other animals exposed to cow manure.

Environmental benefits 

Both intensive corn cropping and industrial cattle rearing harm the environment, with each bushel of corn requiring 1.2 gallons of oil to grow and harvest. 

The need for more meat and corn has also led to the development of agricultural monocultures, which results in deforestation and higher carbon emissions from the overuse of nitrate-based fertilizers.

While some have pointed out that switching to grass-fed meat won’t reduce the desire for beef or the impact of its intensive farming, research by Michigan State University showed holistic planned grass grazing resulted in “greater environmental benefits, such as improved biodiversity and wildlife habitat, and better soil function.” 

This indicates that reduced reliance on corn could have tremendous environmental benefits, even if the demand for beef doesn’t drop.

Is it grass-fed more humane?

Feeding cattle on grass does not guarantee that they are raised humanely; it only refers to their diet. However, there is a correlation between producers who offer grass-fed beef and those who raise their cattle by a more humane standard. 

Voluntary certifications such as Certified Humane or Pasture for Life are often used to certify grass-fed beef because of the lack of official certification, and their providers often demand a level of humane treatment for the animals in question before they will endorse them.

While grass-fed isn’t a sure sign that an animal was raised humanely, it is far more likely to have been that a grain-fed feedlot cow.  

Does grass-fed beef taste better?

Grass-fed beef certainly tastes different.

Grain-fed beef is prized for its fat, its consistency, and its smooth texture.

Because their diet is not as intensively managed, grass-fed animals produce a more complex and nuanced flavor profile, and the meat is leaner and less intensively marbled. 

Many pitmasters love the variety of complex flavors grass-fed beef offers, while others prefer the buttery richness of grain-fed meat.

The folks over at Sous Vide Everything did a video comparing the taste of grass-fed to grain-fed which you can check out below.

Tips for buying and cooking grass-fed beef

If the health benefits and different flavor profile of grass-fed beef interests you, here are some tips on what to buy and how to prepare it.

Look for voluntary certifications

Until grass-fed gets a proper USDA definition, there is always a chance that meat marketed as grass-fed or pasture-fed might not be exactly what it is advertising.

Voluntary certifications, such as Certified Humane or Pasture for Life, are a great way to make sure that you are buying 100% grass-fed beef, and that the animal been reared in a way with which you are happy.

The only exception to this is organic beef. The USDA certifies organic beef providers, so when you see the USDA Certified Organic sticker, you can be sure the meat was organically raised.

Buy your meat from a craft butcher

There is a good chance that grass-fed beef is going to be challenging to find at your local supermarket.

However, there are a growing number of specialist ranches, farms, and butchers who offer humanely-raised, grass-fed, and organic options.

Your options will vary based on where you live, but you can always use an online butcher like Crowd Cow or Porter Road.

Crowd Cow is a novel way of buying beef. You choose the cut you want, and then you can select which ranch you want to buy from.

Crowd Cow Grass Fed Beef Shop Now Crowd Cow Grass Fed Beef We may earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no extra cost to you.

Each ranch has a description you can read to find out more about how their animals are raised.

Add a little extra fat

Grass-fed beef is leaner and lacks some of the marbling of grain-fed meat.

If you’re cooking a traditionally low fat cut, like a tenderloin, you might need to add a little fat. A few strips of streaky bacon wrapped around your beef during cooking usually does the trick. 

Keep your thermometer handy

Grass-fed beef cooks faster than grain-fed because of the lack of insulating fat.

It also tends to appear a little pinker than grain-fed, even at the same level of doneness.

If you’re cooking a grass-fed roast, keep your thermometer to hand and use the cooking time as a guideline rather than a rule.

The Thermapen Mk4 is the best thermometer to use, thanks to its super fast and accurate read time.

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Wrapping it up

With more of us interested in eating food that is better for both our bodies and the environment, the popularity of grass-fed beef is on the rise.

Thanks to our guide, you now know exactly what differentiates it from the usual grain-fed beef and how to source and prepare it. 

Do you have a preference for grain or grass-fed beef? Do you have a specific recipe that suits one better than the other? We’d love it if you’d let us know in the comments!

John McCloy

John McCloy

Formerly a brand manager for the UK high street, John gave up that life for the far less stressful job of running his own business. He now likes to spend as much of his free time as possible hunched over a grill, reading about grills, or staring forlornly out of a window as the British weather makes it impossible to use his grill."

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