What animals eat matters to us, and the environment. Learn the difference between grass- and grain-fed meat.
Encouraged by claims that meat products from grass-fed animals are healthier than those from grain-fed animals, many smaller family farms are switching their feed of choice back to natural grasses. But are there really nutritional benefits to eating grass-fed rather than grain-fed meat? What about the benefits to the environment and the animals themselves?
Meet your meat
Before the 1960s, most animals raised for human consumption ate whatever they could derive from the land. Cows grazed on a variety of grasses; chickens pecked at greens, seeds, and bugs; and hogs rooted for whatever they could get their snouts into, such as leaves, grass, roots, flowers, and fruit.
With the widespread implementation of factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations, these animals were quickly switched to a diet of mostly corn and soy. Currently, though, public demand for healthier animal products is prompting more farms to return to their grass-fed animal roots. In comparison to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef boasts the following nutritional and environmental benefits.
For our nutritional health
Kelly Newton, co-owner and operator of BC’s grass-fed and grass-finished Sumas Mountain Farms, explains that cows are biologically designed to eat grass—not grain. Because they’re ruminants, cows possess a four-chambered stomach that is specifically designed to break down grass cellulose and convert it into healthy protein. Humans can’t do this, but we can reap the rewards by consuming grass-fed meat.
Grass-fed beef has lowered levels of saturated fat, making it much leaner and cleaner than the grain-fed variety. Saturated fat is found mostly in animal products such as red meat, eggs, and dairy. It’s been proven to raise cholesterol levels, which subsequently increases the risk of heart disease.
Generally, grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids when compared to conventional grain-fed beef. These essential fatty acids cannot be created in our bodies and must be consumed in order for our bodies to receive and make use of them. They aid us in a variety of areas, including reducing the risk of heart disease.
In addition, grass-fed beef contains increased levels of iron and zinc. Deficiencies in these minerals are relatively common in North America, due to poor eating habits and inadequate absorption. Iron helps our muscles store and use oxygen, and assists in digestion. Zinc is essential for brain and growth development, and helps fight infection by strengthening the immune system.
Antioxidants, which are found in plants, are consumed by grass-fed animals. Subsequently, higher levels of antioxidants are also found in the products that are derived from them. There are also significantly higher levels of vitamins A, E, and B12 in grass-fed beef.
Fewer GMOs, antibiotics, and hormones
Many farmers who are conscious about the health benefits of grass-fed products take it one step further and become certified organic. This provides further incentive to the consumer, by ensuring the absence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), antibiotics, and hormones.
Most of the feed that is grown for conventional farm animal consumption is genetically modified, with corn and soy being the two highest offenders. While the GMO debate is still ongoing, many concerned activists point out that there aren’t enough scientific studies showing GMOs to be safe for human consumption.
Grass-fed animals also have far less need for antibiotics due to their ability to live naturally outdoors, instead of being cramped and confined inside a building where disease can quickly spread from animal to animal.
Despite the fact that the European Union has implemented a ban on hormones being used to promote accelerated growth in food animals, Canada and the US currently permit the use of hormones for beef cattle. Some of the concerns surrounding food products that contain added hormones include reproductive system interference, growth disruptions, hormone imbalances, and the development of cancer.
For the health of the environment
Allowing farm animals to graze naturally is environmentally friendly. A grass-fed animal’s environment is composed of microbes, minerals, grasses, weeds, and other living things.
Environmentally conscious farmers typically view themselves as stewards, cultivators, and guardians of the many plant and animal species that make up their farm. This allows grass-fed farms to operate in a more sustainable way.
Grass-fed animal farmers also understand that they are essentially grass farmers, first. Newton says, “Without the lush green grasses, the animals have no food source. The better maintained the soil is with a natural diversity of grass species, the healthier the land, and better grazing and foraging is produced for the cows.”
“Grassy pastures also have an additional environmental benefit—they act as a carbon sink,” says Newton. “They pull both methane and carbon dioxide from the air and place them in the soil, cleaning the air.”
In addition, when animals are raised outdoors on pasture as opposed to indoors on concrete or dirt, their manure is dispersed over acres of land, creating a fabulous source of high quality fertilizer. This organic way of dealing with manure management differs greatly from the “waste problem” mentality often associated with factory farms.
For the health of the animals
There are stark comparisons between animals reared solely on grain and those permitted to graze on natural grasses.
Fewer health problems
Because grass-fed animals are permitted to graze outdoors, there are fewer opportunities to spread disease. In addition, their natural feed keeps their rumen at the correct pH, as opposed to grain, which is acid forming.
Grass-fed animals are typically treated more humanely. They aren’t forced to live indoors in cramped and filthy buildings, and they usually aren’t separated from their young immediately following birth.
Grass-fed animals also take longer to achieve an optimal weight for slaughter. Consequently, their lifespans are often increased.
It’s easy to see why organic, grass-fed products are in higher demand among the most health-conscious consumers. Healthy animals produce better quality food for human consumption. Just as we are what we eat, we are also what our food eats.
Finding grass-fed animal products
Here are some ways to find healthier, grass-fed products close to you.
Find local grass-fed farms
To discover what’s near your home in both Canada and the US, visit eatwild.com/products.
Approach shoppers at health-conscious venues such as farmers’ markets and health food stores—people love to share good information.
Sometimes you can find great products at your local grocery store. Be on the lookout for meat that claims to have been “grass-fed and grass-finished.”
Product claims explained
If a product claims to be “grass-fed,” it typically means that the animal from which the product was derived was permitted to consume grasses for most of its life. A few months before processing, the animal is taken to a feedlot to gain weight quickly by being fattened up on grain.
If the product claims to be “grass-fed and grass-finished,” then the animal was permitted to consume only grasses for its entire life—no grain. For the leanest, cleanest meat, choose products that boast this claim whenever possible.