Grain versus grass-fed beef

By: Judy Davie

Grass-fed Black Angus or grain-fed Wagyu - which do you prefer?
For years I inadvertently believed that grain fed beef was better than grass fed. A menu with "grain fed" I thought was the premium meal deal, the meat to beat all meat. Today grain fed meat is widely accepted as a quality product, and while it may be tender and flavoursome, in terms of good health it is not the best for our health or the health of the animal.
Cows are ruminants which means they have four chambers in their stomach. They digest plant based food by softening it in their first stomach, known as the rumen, before regurgitating the semi-digested food, and chewing it again to break it down further. The food moves slowly from one chamber to the next until it has completely digested.
While pasture-fed cattle is still the principle industry of meat producers in Australia, since the mid 1980's the use of high energy grain feed has increased dramatically. Cattle are enclosed for periods ranging from 60 to 300 days and fed on a variety of grains to "fatten them up". The result is marbled meat, a term given when fine threads of fat develop within the meat muscle, keeping it moist and juicy during and after cooking. But while the meat may be considered best for tenderness and flavour how good is it really?

Grain fed vs grass fed
A US study found that beef from grass fed cattle contained almost double the quantities of beta-carotene, almost three times the amount of Vitamin E, sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio. Grain fed cattle contains more saturated fat and consequently more calories. Aside from the well documented research on Omega 3 fats and their role in preventing heart disease and reducing inflammation, the balance of fatty acid concentration in the brain is believed to be particularly supportive in cognitive and behavioral function.

Grass fed cattle also boosts the amount of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) in the beef. This important fatty acid is believed to have a role in reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and accumulation of body fat.

While grain feeding cattle may be a more efficient way to ensure the quality of meat, the welfare of the animals is also a concern.
Ethical issues include the penning of cattle, sometimes in crowded otherwise uncomfortable conditions and health issues loom large. It seems that all important digestive health is not just reserved for humans. The shift from high-fibre grass to high-energy reduced fibre grain foods takes its toll on the health of cattle too with the following health conditions reported.

Excess gas builds up inside the rumen which, if not expelled, can compress the lungs and suffocate the cow.

Fermenting starch in the rumen produces excess levels of bacteria and a dramatic increase of acidity which can be fatal for the animal.

Rumen ulcers
When acidity levels are high and the stomach lining is not protected by mucous, ulcers form on the rumen wall.

Liver abscesses
As a result of rumen ulcers, the animal can develop abscesses on the liver - another fatal condition

The inflammation of the rumen wall allows proteins to be passed into the blood stream to the hooves.

Make the choice
It's important to know that most big-supermarket beef around the country will be grass-fed meat finished on grain, but if the meat comes from southern Victoria or Tasmania, where grass is more likely to be in abundance, there's a good chance it was reared entirely on grass or silage. Find a good butcher and ask him or her where the meat has come from and try to buy grass fed. At the end of the day, in my opinion, the case is closed. You and the cow will benefit from grass fed so understand the difference and make the choice.


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