Grain vs. grass fed: the debate continues

If you turn on the TV today, more than likely you'll hear pundits debate everything from the nation's economy, hazing in the NFL, the role of the United States in foreign policy, Obamacare, celebrity marriages and subsequent divorces and more. Like it or not, there simply are countless topics we simply cannot stop talking about. 

Grain vs. grass fed:  the debate continuesIn recent years, one of those topics has been food. More specific to the cattle industry, there is a continuing debate about which is better nutritionally:  beef from grain-finished cattle or beef from grass-fed cattle. A new review, which was supported by The Beef Checkoff and appeared online in the journal Meat Science , may help some answer that question. The review summarizes the nutritional characteristics and nutrient profiles of beef as reported in numerous studies comparing U.S. grass-fed versus grain-finished cattle.

"Even for nutrition experts like myself, comparing the nutritional profile of grass/forage-fed beef to grain-finished beef can be a little like comparing apples and oranges. Our goal in writing this paper was to summarize the available science on the nutritional characteristics of U.S. grass/forage-fed versus grain-finished beef in the practical context of a per meat serving basis," said Shalene McNeill, Executive Director Nutrition Research at National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "A key take away from this Beef Checkoff funded work is both grass/forage-fed or finished and grain-finished beef contributes important nutrients to the U.S. diet and consumption of either can be compatible with efforts to improve the cardiovascular health of Americans."

While evidence from four U.S. studies suggest that total fat content in beef from grass-fed cattle is lower compared to grain-finished cattle, that's not the whole story. The review points to multiple sources that show beef fat deposition goes beyond feeding systems and is impacted by breed, stage of growth, age at harvest, carcass grade and cut of beef. 

Only one U.S. based study has reported a statistically significant difference in the cholesterol content of beef from grass-fed cattle and grain-finished cattle.

As beef is one of the primary sources for heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids in the U.S. diet, the review pointed out that U.S. grass-fed cattle produce beef with 30-70 percent less monounsaturated fat compared to beef from grain-finished cattle.

The review points out that more studies are needed to better understand the contribution of grass -fed beef, from a greater variety of beef cuts, to saturated fat intake in the U.S.

Only two studies have been found in the United States that compared levels of cell-protecting antioxidant nutrients in beef from grass-fed and grain-finished cattle.

What is the take away from this review? It looks like the debate will continue. Grass-fed or grain-finished, cattlemen have worked to deliver high quality beef that is a good source of protein, zinc, iron and other important vitamins and nutrients. In the meantime, at my house last night, Cowboy Beef and Black Bean Chili was on the menu to help warm up my cowboy husband after a long, cold day working cows in Kansas.