Debating Grass vs Grain Fed Beef



Debating Grass vs Grain Fed Beef – A Case of Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees?

As a dietitian who has practiced for over 25 years, I appreciate why and how people get caught up in the small details of their dietary choices – losing sight of the big picture while focusing on the minutia. In reality, it’s almost always the big picture that counts. The narrative debating the merits of grass- vs grain-fed beef is a perfect example of this.

Recently, an interesting story was posted about a possible new advantage of grass-fed beef – phytonutrient content. Phytonutrients are healthful chemicals found in plants. There are literally hundreds of different phytonutrients, several of which you may have heard of, such as lutein or plant sterols.

We’ve known for a long time that phytonutrients are beneficial, so the prospect of getting some from beef seems appealing! But will I be swapping out my grain-finished beef for this potential?

The answer, for me, is no. With all things nutrition, the impact always has to be considered in the context of a whole diet – I call the fine points “nutrition minutia”, and it’s important we don’t dwell on these since they will distract us from bigger picture goals, such as consuming enough vegetables, limiting empty calories, and eating balanced meals. Considering the average Canadian now consumes almost 50% of calories from nutrient-poor, highly processed foods (compare that to only 5% of calories from unprocessed red meat), I would say the grass-vs grain-fed debate is definitely nutrition minutia. It’s the big picture that is most important, and smart food decisions need to consider the forest well before the trees.

In the case of beef, nutrients of concern (nutrients many Canadians don’t get enough of) like iron, zinc and vitamin B12 are delivered in both grass and grain fed options. And the protein quality is equal too. Nutritionally, many people would benefit from actually adding more beef to their diets. In my opinion, debating grass vs grain for most people seems elitist, unnecessary and distracting.

Claims about the superiority of grass-fed beef – improved omega 6-3 ratios, higher micronutrient content, better saturated fat mix – are not new, and do have validity. For example, while it is technically true that there is more omega-3 fat in grass-fed beef, it is just not a sufficient amount to meet our requirements. If you really want to improve your omega-3 intake, eat seafood!

With regards to a new claim about grass-fed beef containing phytonutrients, like the omega-3 story, we are best served to get plentiful phytonutrients from the source – i.e. plants. So even if this assertion is valid (possibly so), the “so what” matters.

At the end of the day, there is a clear (but subtle) health case for grass-fed beef. I do argue though that in the context of eating well the difference between the two is likely not meaningful enough to make a difference.

And one last point. These arguments, while academic, are somewhat moot. We live in Canada, which is cold, and at some point we need to top our cattle up with grains to fuel the body heat they need to thrive and because there’s no grass to graze on!


For more thoughts and information on this topic, check out our factsheet:

Previous articleTraditional Italian Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
Next articleCantonese Beef Tomato Stir Fry