You’ve heard it before – you are what you eat. This is no different whether you’re a fish, cow, pig or person so when deciding what meat you put in your body, consider what was fed to that animal. The nutrients it consumed during its life will impact what ends up on your plate. Perhaps the most popular of these discussions relates to grass fed vs grain fed cattle. It’s a case of cost, tenderness and quantity vs nutrition, flavour, sustainability and even animal welfare. As always there are two sides to any story and although we’d all like to be eating the best, tastiest, most humanely sourced food available, practicality sometimes rears its ugly head.
Most cattle eat grass for a period after weaning but many spend their last months in feedlots being fattened with a grain and cottonseed/protein mix (or corn by-products – USA) prior to slaughter. While this process increases their weight and tenderness, feedlots are a pretty unpleasant place to exist. Thousands of cattle fenced in tightly and fed high-energy, low fibre, low nutrient food. Unlike their luckier grassfed cousins, these cows will spend from 60-300+ days confined in this pen full of their own manure before being ungraciously sent to the abatoir. During this time they are vaccinated, regularly chemically drenched for parasites, all the while growing at a rate of up to 2kg per day. This means big profits for growers but what about the consumer?
The meat derived from this method has greater marbling, is more tender with whiter fat, less flavour far less nutritional value. This meat has a poor omega-3 : omega-6 ratio (associated with increased levels of inflammation), minimal antioxidants, low levels of CLA (conjucated linoleic acid) and TVA (trans vaccenic acid). CLA has been associated with decreased rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and weight gain and is an important dietary constituent found in few other sources.
Grass fed beef on the other hand has a lower overall fat content, an omega-3 : omega-6 ratio similar to fish, high levels of CLA, Vitamins A (beta carotene – precurser) and E and glutathione, meaning it has excellent health properties. Due to our food production techniques and popular foods, Westerners consume far too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3, leading to a string of lifestyle diseases and health complications.
To be classed as ‘grass fed’, the cow must have spent its entire life out in the paddock eating grass and other plants it finds while roaming around outside. Due to a combination of exercise and diet, grass fed beef has a stronger, ‘beefier’ flavour although a tougher texture. Many consumers prefer the more tender, bland flavour of grain fed beef but I’ll choose taste and nutrition every time. Plus the thought of all those cows milling around in the sun in a slurry of their own fecaes makes me cringe.
I’m fortunate enough to have access to humanely slaughtered, grass fed beef through my parent’s farm. Each year we home-kill and butcher about 2 steers who grow up on the property and spend their entire lives eating grass, escaping through fences, swimming in dams and following my father around. People ask how I can name, feed and look after a cow then kill and butcher it. I guess it just seems normal to me and I love knowing that Biscuit had the best possible life AND death. I know this isn’t practical for most people but grass fed beef is accessible so I definitely recommend starting there for the sake of your own health. If price is a factor, remember you shouldn’t bea eating more more than 1-2 100g servings of red meat per week so always choose quality over quantity.
Take home messages
- Choose grass fed beef where possible
- Organic grain fed is not really a better nutritional choice than conventional grass fed
- If price is a factor, eat less and supplement your diet with legumes and vegetable protein sources – quality over quantity
- Grass-fed beef has higher omega-3, glutathione, superoxide dismutase, Vitamin A & E precursers, TVA and CLA content
- The longer a cow spends in feedlots, the less nutritious the beef
An animal (or human) cannot turn bad food into good so please remember, you are what you eat!