What’s healthier grass-fed or grain-fed beef?


BY Carol Harrison, RD

All beef is naturally nutrient-rich high in iron, zinc and B vitamins plus hunger-curbing protein but how are grass-fed and grain-fed beef different and is one more nutritious than the other? Bottom line, the nutrition differences are arguably not significant enough to make a marked difference in your overall health.

 After weaning, all cattle start out on pasture eating grass

The distinction between grass and grain fed cattle comes down to how they are “finished” or their diet before market.

At about 3-4 months before market, grain-fed cattle gradually transition from pasture to grain-feed (corn or barley) in feedlots such as barns or fenced in areas.

Grass fed cattle will continue their life on fresh, dried or fermented grasses. Compared to grain fed, grass fed cattle take longer to get to market weight, thus the higher price point.

Yes, grass fed beef is leaner but not by much

Studies have found grass fed beef is leaner by about 2-4 grams of fat per 100 grams of trimmed meat (little more than one 75 gram serving, the size of a deck of cards). In the context of the total diet however that amount is unlikely to have an impact on overall health. Further, many assume all the fat in beef is saturated, however, half the fat in beef is monounsaturated, the same type of fat found in olive oil. And keep in mind, trimmed sirloin steak just as lean as skinless chicken breast.

Neither grass nor grain fed beef are a significant source of omega-3 fats

Bottom line, yes grass fed beef has more omega-3 fats than grain fed beef, regardless they are both poor sources of omega-3 fats. Choosing grass or grain fed beef as a source of omega-3 fats is misguided. Instead, choose omega-3 rich foods like fatty fish, flax oil, walnuts or hemps seeds.

No significant differences in cholesterol or nutrients

In the majority of studies reviewed there were no differences in the level of cholesterol, or in nutrients such as zinc and iron. There were small differences in Vitamin B, potassium and calcium but again, nothing meaningful in the context of the total diet.

Take home advice from a dietitian

For most Canadians, a focus on building a healthy plate would do more to improve health than any one isolated change such as choosing grass over grain fed beef. That’s because on average 50% of the calories in the Canadian diet come from ultra-processed food such as sweet baked goods, fast food, pop and salty snack foods.

Replacing these foods with naturally nutrient rich choices or food closest to its natural state is a worthwhile goal.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner, build a healthy plate with:

  • ½ vegetables and fruit (fresh and frozen);
  • ¼ quality protein (beef, fish, lentils, nuts, beans) and;
  • ¼ whole grains (barley, brown rice).


For nutrition advice you can trust visit Unlockfood.ca


Reference: Van Elswyk ME and McNeill SH. Impact of Grass/Forage Feeding versus Grain Finishing on Beef Nutrients and Sensory Quality: The U.S. Experience. Meat Sci 2014; 96(1):535-540


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