The thought of cows munching peacefully in green paddocks certainly seems healthier than being jammed in feedlots, but is there merit to the claim that grass-fed beef is better?
Grain-fed cattle actually feed on grass for most of their formative years before being turned to grain for the final 75 to 100 days. This is usually done to increase the marbling of meat, to increase the animal size, or when there’s drought and not enough grass for grazing.
“We want people having beef that is quite lean,” nutrition and wellbeing specialist Melanie McGrice said.
“Often grass-fed animals are more active than animals that are purely grain fed because they are often shut away and doing less physical activity.”
Grass-fed beef also sits well with those of the paleo persuasion, given it’s the way cattle ate before modern farming techniques introduced grain.
“The grass-fed (label) is very important. I have a lot of customers who are living with the ‘paleo diet’ where grass-fed beef is one of the predominant things,” farmer Louise Mawhinney said.
“I have quite a few customers that are on a diet that follows their blood type and it specifies grass-fed beef, so that’s important to them. I have some that just like the taste.”
Some studies have suggested that grass fed beef has more omega 3 good fats than grain-fed beef – potentially about seven percent of the total fat content compared to one percent in grain-fed beef.
However there is no clear difference between omega 3 levels in meat, and that the level of omega 3 is dependent on the type of grasses the cow ate before it transitioned to grain feeding.
And given the short period of time most cattle is grain-fed, it often doesn’t make a significant difference to the marbling of the meat. (The exception to this is grain-fed wagyu beef, which is grain fed for about 300 days to make it noticeably more marbled.)
There is argument that grass-fed beef is more ethical and makes for a more pleasant existence for cows, however it can be more expensive – particularly if you want to buy from local farmers.
It’s worth noting that “grass fed” does not automatically mean “organic” because the grass could have been sprayed with chemicals, whereas certified organic and biodynamic farmers can’t use artificial fertilisers.