Is ‘Grass-Fed’ Beef Better for You?

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 3 minutes

Knowledge is power — and in the Information Age, people are flexing that muscle in both the kitchen and the grocery aisle.

“Consumers are demanding to know more than ever about the foods they eat,” says Kim Denkhaus, a California-based registered dietitian nutritionist and CEO of Kim Denkhaus Nutrition.

Is 'Grass-Fed' Beef the Best Choice?

Educated shoppers now demand everything from organic produce to free-range chickens. Another hot dietary trend is a preference for “grass-fed” beef.

Most cattle are raised on a “grain-fed” diet involving foods such as corn. But a smaller number of these animals graze on a diet of grass and other forage.

Proponents of grass-fed beef say it is more healthful than its grain-fed counterpart. Experts agree that grass-fed beef is lower in fat and richer in some nutrients than grain-fed beef. Such nutrients include:

  • Antioxidants
  • Conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat
  • Omega-3 fats
  • Vitamins A and E

Consumer Reports also tested meat and found that compared to conventionally raised beef, grass-fed beef was less likely to harbor superbugs resistant to antibiotics.

Some say benefits oversold

However, some critics contend that the benefits of grass-fed beef are modest. Denkhaus is among those who believe the virtues of grass-fed beef may have been oversold.

“There has been a lot of hype centered around grass-fed beef in the media,” she says, adding that research into the benefits of grass feeding over grain feeding is limited.

For example, Denkhaus notes that although grass-fed beef may be richer in omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef, you can find much better sources of this nutrient elsewhere.

“A fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel, or sardines would be a better source of omega-3 fatty acids,” she says.

Denkhaus acknowledges that health-conscious consumers may get some benefit from eating grass-fed beef. But she says each consumer needs to decide whether the pluses are worth the “premium price tag,” that often comes with this meat.

Last year’s Consumer Reports study found that grass-fed beef and organic grass-fed beef cost about $2.50 to $3 more per pound, respectively, than conventional beef.

“Ultimately, it comes down to the consumer’s preference,” she says. “How much is the consumer concerned about animal welfare, environmental sustainability, flavor, antibiotic and growth hormone usage?”

Finding grass-fed beef

If you plan to purchase grass-fed beef, it’s important to be aware of some recent key changes.

For years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture maintained a labeling program that identified meat as being “grass-fed.” But in January, the USDA announced that it was dropping its grass-fed label, contending that it was not useful to “stakeholders or consumers.”

The USDA’s decision elicited a mixed-reaction among supporters of grass-fed beef. Some say the change makes it more difficult for consumers to identify grass-fed beef. Others maintain that just a handful of producers were using the label, and that it was largely ineffective.

Either way, the change means sellers of grass-fed beef now must adopt USDA existing standard, develop their own standard or use an existing private-label standard.

These private label standards often go beyond merely identifying whether the meat comes from cattle that were grass-fed, and also note things such as whether:

  • Hormones or antibiotics were used
  • The animals were confined
  • Environmental stewardship was a priority in raising and feeding the cattle

Denkhaus urges consumers shopping for grass-fed beef to look for labels that say “100% grass fed,” or that are marked “Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) 100% GrassFed.”

This latter designation is part of the first third-party verification system to certify U.S. grass-fed meat and dairy products, Denkhaus says.