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Grass-fed versus Grain-fed… What’s the Difference?

August 29th, 2012
Grass fed vs Grain fed

There are 3 kinds of beef/meat:

  • Conventional (factory meat)
  • Grass-fed, Grain-finished
  • Grass-fed, Grass-finished

There was once a time when all meat was fully grass-fed and organic and labels were not required.  This is the way it was for a long time until humans started intervening in the diets of animals in an attempt to produce more meat, produce it faster and produce it cheaper. With all these different labels, it gets confusing to know what kind of meat is the healthiest. Grass-fed? Natural? Organic? Conventional? Grain-finished? It’s a bit confusing. Trust me, it’s imperative to know the differences in these labels. The differences in these products can be vastly different and have huge implications for your health.


Conventional beef comprises about 95% of the beef in the U.S. and comes from cows living in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Cattle are typically allowed to graze on grass initially, but are then sent to these CAFOs or crowded feedlots to get fattened up. They are confined with thousands of other cattle and not allowed to graze any longer. They are injected with growth hormones, antibiotics, and fed a grain-based diet to fatten them up as quickly and cost effectively as possible.  The typical diet includes corn, soybeans, and grains which are generally genetically modified and laden with pesticides.   The feed may also include a variety of “creative” and seemingly inedible waste products.  Animal feed manufacturers and farmers have experimented with feeding their animals remains of slaughtered animals,  dehydrated food garbage, peanut shells, manure, left-over fat from restaurant fryers and the list goes on.  There are so many things wrong with this picture.


Let’s not forget, you are what you EAT EATS. You will be ingesting hormone and antibiotic residues, pesticide residues, GMOs and a nutritionally inferior product as compared to beef or meat raised on grass. This is not my idea of REAL FOOD.  Cows are designed to eat grass, shrubs and plants…not grains.  A cow has 4 stomachs that operate at a certain pH in order to digest and assimilate nutrients properly.  A grain-fed diet completely alters the pH of their stomachs and creates a more acidic environment, thus producing a completely different end product, not to mention causes cows to have digestive issues and become sickly (but hey…that’s what the anti-biotics are for right?) The nutritional profile and fat composition of beef from a CAFO cow and a cow eating grass is completely different. More about that in a minute…

Grass-fed, Grain-finished

It is not enough these days to seek out grass-fed beef. When you ask for “grass-fed”, you may actually be getting grass-fed, grain-finished beef or meat.  After 2005, the term “grass-fed” changed to mean that the animal had to be on a grazing diet for a minimum of 140 days prior to slaughter, but can then be transferred to a commercial feedlot to eat grains, corn, soy, etc. This is typically what you are getting when you buy organic beef in the U.S. (Could be grass-fed, grain-finished or completely grain-fed without the use of hormones and antibiotics).   If it is organic, the cows/animals are not given growth hormones and they are only given antibiotics when they are sick. The feed will also be organic and free of pesticides. This is a much better choice than conventional beef, however it will still have an inferior nutritional profile than beef from cows raised entirely on grass. Putting cows or animals on 30 days of grain at the end their lives to fatten them up, dramatically reduces the health promoting, disease-fighting properties of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and omega 3s that you would get from meat products of animals raised entirely on pasture.

Grass-fed, Grass-finished

Grass-fed, grass-finished beef comes from cows that are raised on pasture, eating grass, shrubs and plants for their whole life…the way nature designed it to be. This is the way it has always been up until WWII.  After WWII there was a surplus of nitrogen in the U.S. from making weapons and bombs. The nitrogen was used by the agricultural industry and added to their corn crops, which resulted in abundant amounts of corn.  Around 1952, they decided to start feeding this excess corn supply to animals. By 1970, grain-fed animals were the majority. Nowadays, we have to go out of our way to find meat from animals raised entirely on pasture.

Cattle allowed to graze on pasture are generally healthier, free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. Grass-fed beef, along with grass-fed lamb, grass-fed bison and butter is full of health-promoting CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). There is approximately 400x more CLA in grass-fed meat versus conventional meat. Why? Because CLA requires green plants to make it. There’s nothing green in corn or grains. CLA strengthens the immune system, helps decrease insulin resistance, decreases risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes and helps to increase muscle mass while reducing fat.

Beef from cows that eat grass will also produce a much healthier fatty acid profile with much more omega 3 fatty acids than omega 6s.  Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory in nature.  Grain-fed beef produces an unnaturally high omega 6 content and little to no omega 3s.  Both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are essential to our bodies, however consumption of a high grain-based and processed food diet yields a high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio.  Healthy, ancestral cultures consumed a 1:1 to 2:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio.  Today, we consume closer to a 10:1 and up to a 30:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio.  A diet with excess omega 6 fatty acids is pro-inflammatory and detrimental to our health. Consuming more omega 3s through grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish and pastured egg yolks, while eliminating processed food, toxic vegetable oils and grains will help us achieve a healthier fatty acid ratio and decrease inflammation.

Grass-fed beef also contains more B vitamins, vitamin E, vitamin K and trace minerals than grain-fed meat. Grass-fed beef is more nutrient dense because the cows eat more nutrient dense food.  Plus…most people think grass-fed meat tastes much better.


As you can imagine, a cow confined to a pen with thousands of other cows, not allowed to graze, not fed its natural diet and standing in its own manure isn’t exactly humane according to most people. Have you ever seen Food, Inc? If not…rent it and get a visual of what is going on. It definitely made a huge impact on us. I get why vegans and vegetarians feel the need to remove meat from their diet after seeing that. I don’t want to eat that kind of meat either nor do I agree with treating animals that way. At the same time I know QUALITY beef and other QUALITY animal products, raised on pasture, and treated humanely offers vital nutrients to a healthy body.  Eliminating meat entirely is not the answer and not the way our ancestors lived and thrived.

Bottom line…grass-fed, grass-finished is the gold-star standard when choosing your beef or any other meat. Grass-fed, grain-finished meat is the next best choice. You would be wise to go out of your way to avoid conventional meat entirely if possible. As always, do the best you can with the knowledge and resources you have!

Places to find and purchase grass-fed, grass-finished meat:

Photo ofBrenda Walding
Brenda Walding
Job Title
DPT, Physical Therapist
Paleo Net

5 Responses

  1. Lauren says:

    Very interesting stuff, I try to only buy “grass-fed” or “free range” at the grocery store, but now I am not even sure if I am buying it honestly!

    • June says:

      Ask the butcher at the store. They can be very helpful as to the sources of the meat. Farmers markets tend to have grass fed only meat. You can also go online and look up the name of the farms the meat comes from and even contact them.

  2. Will says:

    Nice article. Thanks, Brenda.

  3. It’s going to be end of mine day, but before end I am reading this great article to
    improve my knowledge.

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