Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: How Do I Choose?
Nearly 50% of Canadian consumers eat red meat on a daily basis. That’s a lotta beef! Between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, what’s best for your health and your household’s tastes? Here’s our guide to the pros and cons of grain-fed vs. grass-fed beef, as well as other information, so you know exactly what you’re buying.
You’ve heard the saying before: you are what you eat. What about the food your food consumes? Cattle are what they eat, too! In fact, the nutrients in beef can vary depending on the cattles’ diets, according to studies. So to make the right purchase decision for your meals, you should probably know what the terms “grass-fed” and “grain-fed” really mean to you, the end consumer of the beef.
Since expanding The Butcher Shoppe meat counter to include online ordering, we realize that our expert butchers aren’t always there to answer questions like these on the spot. And we’ve received plenty of inquiries about grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef. To help clear the air and help you buy the right cut, we’ve put together our own expert guide.
SPOILER ALERT: One is not inherently superior to the other. Both grass-fed and grain-fed beef have their pros, cons, and quirky caveats.
Table of Contents
- What is Grass-Fed Beef?
- What is Grain-Fed Beef?
- “No-Hormone & Antibiotics” Beef vs. Grain-Fed Beef
- Questions to Ask When Deciding Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef
- How Does the Flavour and Quality Compare?
- What's the Environmental Impact of Each Type of Beef?
- Which Beef Can You Buy Locally?
- What is the Cost Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?
- Which is Healthier: Grass-Fed or Grain-Fed Beef?
What is Grass-Fed Beef?
As the name suggests, the diet for grass-fed cattle mainly consists of grass. But here’s a little known fact: some of the best grass-fed beef comes from Australia, as it is one of the few places on earth where grass is growing year-round. In most other countries, Canada included, cattle will also feed on hay, baleage, and plants when there’s snow on the ground. This means that grass-fed beef varies depending on where it’s from, with products from Australia not being directly comparable to those in North America, for example.
By and large, grazing on grass is a far more natural way for cows to eat. A grass diet tends to keep cattle healthier and more comfortable as a result. Because of this, grass-fed beef tends to be a more natural choice, among a few other advantages. Compared to grain-fed beef, for example, grass-fed beef usually has less fat, including less monounsaturated fat, fewer calories, and higher amounts of nutrients like Vitamin A and Vitamin E as well as Omega 3 fatty acids. On the other hand, the lower fat content of grass-fed beef means it becomes tough more easily and requires greater care during cooking. Below are some of the pros and cons of grass-fed beef.
Pros of Grass-Fed Beef
Cons of Grass-Fed Beef
✅ Produces healthy fats, omega-3 acids, and vitamins
✅ Beneficial for the cattle’s diet, health, and wellbeing
✅ Our grass fed beef is raised without additives, antibiotics, and growth hormones
🚫 More expensive due to availability (fewer cattle on a farm)
🚫 Less flavour due to lack of marbling
🚫 Harder to find in grocery stores and marketplaces
🚫 Environmental considerations (importing)
What is Grain-Fed Beef?
Most cattle start their lives in a similar way: calves are born on pasture and remain there until they are weaned from their mothers. Whereas grass-fed cattle continue to have access to pasture land, grain-fed cattle are moved to live on large feedlots. Most grain-fed cattle eat a combination of grain, corn, soy, corn byproducts, and additional supplements. The amounts of ingredients in grain-fed cattles’ diets have been fine-tuned over many years in order to promote faster and healthier growth in beef cattle.
Grain-feeding systems are the most commonly used throughout the world as it makes the cattle bigger and increases the amount of marbling, which is what’s responsible for much of the beef’s flavour and tenderness. Whereas grass-fed cattle tend to have a leaner, darker colored fat with less marbling, grain-fed beef tends to have whiter colored fat. The result can be a noticeable difference in flavour. Below are some of the pros and cons of grain-fed beef.
Pros of Grain-Fed Beef
Cons of Grain-Fed Beef
✅ More value and readily available
✅ More variety and options
✅Juicy and marbleized (increased flavour)
✅ Generally smaller carbon footprint related to transportation (Local Canadian farms)
🚫 Higher fat content may not be desirable
🚫 May not be as healthy or ethical for the animal
🚫 Less natural than grass grazing
“No-Hormone & Antibiotics” Beef vs. Grain-Fed Beef
What “no-hormone” or “hormone-free” beef really means is that no hormones were given to the cow during its lifetime. This is an important distinction, as all cattle consume and receive natural hormones through the food they eat. That goes for grass-fed and grain-fed cows.
Since grass-fed cattle stick to a more natural diet of 100% grass and don’t end up being fed, they don’t typically need any antibiotics nor do they benefit from hormones throughout their lives, which some grain-fed cattle do receive. While this might be viewed as healthier for both the cattle and the consumer, it does cause grass-fed cattle to be a bit smaller than their grain-fed relatives (hormones increase hunger), and it makes the raising process a bit lengthier, too.
*If you’re looking for grain-fed beef without the use of hormones and antibiotics, choose our Local Natural option*
The average grass-fed cow on a strictly no-hormone diet will be approximately 450 Kg to 545 Kg, once full-grown at 20 to 26 months old.
- Grain-fed cows that are given additional hormones will be between 545 Kg to 635 Kg by the time they reach 15 to 22 months old.
Questions to Ask When Deciding Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef
At the end of the day, the grass-fed and grain-fed beef you order from The Butcher Shoppe is highly regulated, from the farm to your plate. No exceptions! Both are great options for beef that you and your family ought to feel very comfortable with.
Overall, choosing between grass-fed and grain-fed beef depends on your personal taste and goals. Both types of beef are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals like zinc and iron and can be a healthy component to your diet. The rest, frankly, is marketing and labelling tricks. It’s really about what you want out of this particular part of your diet. Are you all about flavour? Environmental impact? Cost? Here are some common questions to consider when buying grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef.
How Does the Flavour and Quality Compare?
Due to the cattles’ diet, grain-fed beef usually has higher levels of marbling and is sweeter in taste. Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, is known for having a more mineral-heavy taste. This is because a diet composed strictly of grass makes the meat produce less marbling. Still, plenty of our customers comment on how delicious our grass-fed selection is.
If you want the “best flavour,” choose grain-fed Prime grade beef.
If you want the most “natural,” choose grass-fed beef.
What's the Environmental Impact of Each Type of Beef?
Now more than ever, sustainability is at the top of the minds of many beef consumers and producers. As we pointed out above, and as we always remind our environmentally inclined customers, grass-fed beef doesn’t always mean more environmentally friendly. That’s because most 100% grass-fed beef comes from Australia, which, the last time we checked, is a couple of worlds away (and at least one big ocean). This means there’s often an environmental impact to importing 100% grass-fed beef.
Though the grain-fed beef system makes up a large portion of beef production, there’s research to support that it can produce a comparatively small carbon footprint.
Grain-fed cows can gain weight in a smaller amount of time and are therefore able to cycle into the meat market much quicker than grass-fed cows. Plus, grain-fed cattle are kept in containment rather than left to roam, so they use about 35% less water and 30% less land. That said, grass-fed beef isn’t unsustainable by any means. By utilizing proper grazing management, the process of grass-feeding cattle can keep soil carbon levels healthy without ever running out of the primary resource needed to make this system work—grass.
Which Beef Can You Buy Locally?
Did you know Canada is one of the largest exporters of red meat in the entire world? Our country’s beef sector produces about 1.55 million tonnes of beef annually and generates an estimated 228,000 jobs. Plenty of our own beef at The Butcher Shoppe comes from Canada. So buying local beef ought to be more than possible, wherever you’re located in Canada.
It just won’t be 100% grass-fed, as most of this beef is imported from countries like Australia. Therefore, if your preference is for local beef, grain-fed is more likely available.
What is the Cost Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?
As much as we’d like to eat Wagyu Beef every night, it’s not exactly cost effective—especially for people with large families. On average, grass-fed beef is about $2 to $3 more expensive per pound than grain-fed beef. This is mostly due to the time it takes to fully raise cows on a grass diet alone. Generally, it takes a whole year longer to raise grass-fed cattle, which in turn increases costs of food and labor for the farmers.
Even with all that extra time, fully grown grass-fed cows tend to be a bit smaller than their grain-fed counterparts. That means each grass-fed cow will produce less meat and therefore, less money for the producers. To make up for this lost profit, farmers will typically raise their prices when selling grass-fed beef to grocery stores and restaurants.
Which is Healthier: Grass-Fed or Grain-Fed Beef?
You’re going to be hard-pressed to find any definitive claims—at least any backed by hard data–about whether grass-fed or grain-fed beef is healthier. Though you might find both in grass-fed and grain-fed beef, the level of hormones and antibiotics allowed in beef products is highly regulated. Of course, you can avoid the presence of added hormones and antibiotics by buying The Butcher Shoppe’s grass fed beef (but note that not all grass-fed beef is free of these substances).
Whether You Choose Grass-Fed or Grain-Fed, Who You Buy Beef From Might Matter Most
There are plenty of factors to consider when it comes to choosing between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Both options offer their own unique advantages and disadvantages pertaining to cost, flavor, quality, environmental impact, and more. In the end, it all boils down to your personal wants, needs, and preferences.
That said, where you decide to buy your beef might matter most.
Since 1984, The Butcher Shoppe has been committed to providing the highest-quality beef products for our local Toronto customers and all those in Ontario. Whether you’re shopping locally or buying online, it’s important to really know about what you put in your body. When it comes to your beef, that’s information that our customer care team can provide outright, no matter which beef cut you choose to buy.
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