Cattle are herbivore which mean they feed on plants. While some farmers will prefer to have, their cows graze on grass (grass-fed) while others feed their cattle with grains (grain-fed). According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a grass-fed animal has to be fed exclusively with grass and forage after weaning and continuously have access to pasture during the seasons they are available. There is no specification on the amount of feed that will be from a field or other sources. The criteria for grass-fed may differ from one country to another.
Research has shown that the way cows are fed can significantly affect the nutrient composition of their beef. In most cases, calves are born in spring, milk-fed by their mothers and allowed to roam freely and feed on fresh green pasture in the environment. This period of the calves’ lives spans from 7 to 9 months.
After this period, they are moved to large feedlots called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where they are confined to limited space for fattening using grain-based feeds from corn or soy. Also, these cows are dozed with drugs like growth hormones and antibiotics to maximize growth.
The Impact of Grass-Fed on the Cattle
If cattle are fed on grains without enough roughage, it can lead to the lowering of the internal pH of the animal. An acidic internal system for cattle can lead to myriads of health problems. On the moral side, the digestive system of livestock is structured for grass and feeding it with grain doesn’t seem right.
An expert on animal welfare, Temple Grandin, compared grain to cake and ice cream in cows. On this premise, cake and ice cream is sweet and will likely make anyone happy but we all know the downside of making this your main meal – and it is not different in cattle.
The Nutritional Advantage of Grass-fed Beef
It appears the saying “You are what you eat” also applies to cattle. Studies have shown that grass-fed beef has a nutritional advantage over regular beef. They usually have a higher concentration of certain vitamins, antioxidants, and fatty acids.
Grass-fed beef has a lower monosaturated fat, about twice as more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and up to five times more Omega-3 fats than grain-fed beef. The fat composition also varies depending on the breed of the cow and from which body part the meat was cut from.
According to a professor at Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Tufts University, Alice H. Lichtenstein, the emphasis on the health benefit of grass-fed beef centers on its high content of Omega-3 which is necessary for proper brain function.
Meat is generally a good source of certain nutrients which the human body cannot make on its own, but analysis shows that grass-fed has a fractionally higher amount of certain nutrients. These nutritional differences, though not very high, can make a whole difference for people who are suffering from nutritional deficiencies.
For example, studies show that grass-fed beef has a higher amount of Vitamin A and Vitamin E compared to grain-fed beef. While Vitamin A is vital for the proper functioning of different organs in the body, Vitamin E is good for fertility and acts as an antioxidant that protects the cell membranes from the destructive effect of oxidation.
The Bottom Line
If you are an advocate of choosing foods that are close to nature over processed food, you can take it a step further when it comes to animals by choosing animals fed on real food. It is true that in some cases the nutritional difference may not be much from regular beef, but that little extra can make a difference.