Horizons #85 – Grain-fed meat versus grass-fed meat: any key differences?

25 January, 2023

by Professor Ross Kingwell, AEGIC Chief Economist

Key message to grains industry steakholders… 😉 There are some differences between these meats.

You go to buy some beef and are confronted by rows of meat cuts with adjectives — hormone-free, grass-fed, organic, grain-fed, extra-lean, etc.

When it comes to grain-fed versus grass-fed beef, are there any key differences in the nutritional qualities of the meat? Do any of the differences greatly matter?

First worth highlighting is that both grain-finished and grass-fed beef are highly concentrated sources of beneficial nutrients. Each type of beef is loaded with vitamins B12, B3, and B6; highly bioavailable iron, selenium, and zinc. Each type of beef also contains high quality protein and various lesser-known nutrients, such as creatine and carnosine important for muscle and brain functioning.

Even though the differences are often not large, grass-fed beef tends to contain higher amounts of beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A and higher amounts of vitamin E and other antioxidants.

Grass-fed beef usually contains less total fat and therefore fewer calories than grain-fed beef, although the breed and cut of meat and trimming habit of the butcher also affect the amount of fat. In addition, in general, grass-fed beef contains much less monounsaturated fat than grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef often contains up to five times as much omega-3 compared to grain-fed beef. Moreover, grass-fed beef contains about twice as much conjugated linoleic acid which is a fatty acid associated with some health benefits. Both types of beef, however, usually contain similar amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.

A key environmental difference between grain-fed versus grass-fed beef is that the higher quality feed given to grain-fed animals reduces their greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat produced. By contrast, grass-fed cattle naturally emit more methane when digesting lower quality grasses and pasture and as these cattle reach their market weights more slowly than feedlot cattle, they emit more methane over a longer time.

Although grain-fed beef often has a lower carbon footprint than grass-finished beef, nonetheless grass-finished beef enables use of human-inedible plants to produce valued meat.

In Australia we offer each production system, grass-fed and grain-fed, with most grain-finished beef cattle having been raised for most of their lives in the rangelands. Ultimately, consumers weigh up the nutritional and environmental differences between grain-fed and grass-fed meat and depending on their relative costs and characteristics will make plain their preferences for either type of meat.

Banner image: CSIRO, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Horizons: the AEGIC Economics and Market Insights blog

Expert grains industry analysis and commentary from AEGIC’s Economics and Market Insight Team on a range of big-picture topics that affect Australia’s export grains sector.

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