Save vs. Splurge: Grass-fed Beef

This little guy wants grass for grub! See more extreme grilling pictures.
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When it comes to beef, there's a baffling array of options to choose from. But in the past 10 years or so, one option in particular has left many a beef fan scratching his or her head in puzzlement.

The dilemma we're referring to is the decision whether to buy regular corn-fed beef or drop a few extra bucks and pick up the grass-fed variety. While the grass-fed meat industry is still small potatoes compared to corn-fed commerce, it's growing at a steady rate. For example, in 2006, grass-fed beef amounted to less than 1 percent of the overall beef industry, but still brought in roughly $120 million in sales [source: Time].

So clearly a lot of people are jumping on the grass-fed beef bandwagon, which raises the question: Do they know something the rest of us don't? Or are they just health nuts who'll buy anything labeled "USDA Process Verified" and has support from animal and Earth advocates?

Well, as it turns out, grass-fed beef really might be worth those extra couple of dollars -- at least if a person is actually concerned about eating healthily, humanely and with regard for the environment. That's because the meat that's from cattle that eat mostly corn is commonly considered less nutritious than that from cows allowed to graze on grass, their natural fare. Grass-fed cows do tend to taste a bit chewier than corn-fed cows -- they get exercise as they move from pasture to pasture, so they're more muscular -- but when it comes to nutrients, they're jam-packed.

On the next page, we'll take a closer look at why grass-fed cows are becoming such, well, cash cows.

Why Grass is Great for Cows

Cows evolved on a grass diet, so many people think grass is the best diet for them to eat.
Cows evolved on a grass diet, so many people think grass is the best diet for them to eat.
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Someone looking to eat healthily and still include a bit of beef in his or her meal plan might go the grass-fed route because grass-fed cows allegedly have a number of nutritional advantages over their corn-eating counterparts. For example, meat from grass-fed cows reportedly contains between 35 and 65 percent less saturated fat than corn-fed cows [source: NPR]. (It should be noted that cattlemen who corn-feed their cattle unsurprisingly say these claims are exaggerated.) One study found that grass-fed cows had more omega-3 fatty acids than corn-fed bovines, along with more conjugated linoleic acid. Between the two of them, they lower the risk of heart disease, boost the immune system, and help battle cancer and type 2 diabetes [source: Consumer Reports].

If you're looking for more reasons why you should splurge on grass-fed beef, consider the fact that it's allegedly loaded with vitamin A and vitamin E, which have been linked to disease resistance. You'll also be eating meat that's free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. Grass-fed cows rarely require (or are given) antibiotics, but corn-fed cows need them, or at least receive them, by the bucketful. In fact, an estimated 70 percent of the antibiotics consumed each year in the United States are popped down the gullets of various livestock and poultry. This is a huge problem in terms of disease resistance, which is a factor in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year [source: Time].

One potential drawback with this splurge, however, is that cows raised in the grass-fed manner will vary in taste depending on what type of cow they are and what sort of grasses they're snacking on. So while it's possible that you might find a particular type of beef not to your liking, you also might find a variety that'll have you singing its praises till the cows come home. On a related note, grass-fed cows also help decrease erosion and increase the fertility of their grazing land.

On the next page, get lots more information on a variety of food-related topics.

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Sources

  • Aubrey, Allison. "The Truth About Grass-fed Beef. NPR. (5/20/2010) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125722082
  • Daley, Cynthia et al. "A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef." Nutrition Journal. March 10, 2010. (5/20/2010) http://www.nutritionj.com/content/9/1/10
  • "Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standards." USDA. (5/20/2010) http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0 /ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateN& navID=GrassFedMarketingClaimStandards& rightNav1=GrassFedMarketingClaimStandards&topNav=& leftNav=GradingCertificationandVerfication&page=GrassFedMarketingClaims&resultType=&acct=lss
  • "Is grass-fed beef better?" Consumer Reports. March 2008. (5/20/2010) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/food/news/2008/03/grass-fed-beef-3-08/overview/grass-fed-beef-ov.htm
  • McWilliams, James. "A Myth of Grass-Fed Beef." Jan. 27, 2010. (5/20/2010) http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/27/a-myth-of-grass-fed-beef/
  • "The Grass-Fed Revolution." Time. June 11, 2006. (5/20/2010) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1200759,00.html
  • Venuto, Tom. "Organic Food and Grass Fed Beef - Worth It or Not?" Men's Total Fitness. http://www.mens-total-fitness.com/organic-food.html