Is Grass-Fed Beef Better?

by Holley Grainger, MS, RD
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Is Grass-Fed Beef Better?

All cattle is grass-fed most of its life. Yet most beef comes from cattle “finished” on feedlots with a diet of various grains, roughage and nutritional supplements for the last 120-200 days to fatten it up and limit muscle development creating  more tender meat before slaughter.

Grass-fed beef is theoretically grass-fed its entire life and comes with a health halo, as well as accompanying higher price tag. Let’s break that down.


Only some food labels are regulated, and many of them don’t mean quite what you might think. In terms of beef, here are a few to know:


While regulated by the USDA, this label simply means no preservatives or artificial ingredients have been added. When talking about raw beef, this label is essentially meaningless.


Instead of natural, look for “naturally raised,” which is a USDA certification that the meat comes from cattle that never received growth hormones, antibiotics or animal by-products. Both “natural” and “naturally raised” beef can be grain- or grass-fed.


This beef is from cattle fed 100% organic feed, either from grass or grain, with access to pasture and never given hormones or antibiotics.


It used to be that grass-fed beef came from cattle raised on a pasture, and fed only grass or forage once they were weaned. On January 12, 2016, the USDA nixed its grass-fed labeling program and no longer defines this term. Apparently, only four grass-fed beef producers nationwide adhered  to the USDA standard.


You can still find “grass-fed” beef at the store, but the USDA no longer defines or regulates it.

The USDA says the handful of users of its grass-fed label must now do one of three things. First, they can adopt the USDA’s existing standard as their own. Second, they can develop their own standard. Or, third, they can rely on an existing private labeling standard. Notably, these private certifiers have been among those who pointed out many of the limitations of the USDA standards.

“The USDA definition does a good job of defining what grassfed animals can and cannot be fed,” the Food Alliance writes. “But it does not deal with other issues consumers care about—like the use of hormones and antibiotics, confinement of animals and environmental stewardship.”

Which labels have some meaning? According to Consumer Reports, beef labeled “grass-fed” by American Grassfed, NOFA-NY, PCO Certified or AGW means the beef (or dairy product) comes from animals that were 100% grass-fed as certified by an independent third party.


The USDA Nutrient Database shows that, per 3-ounce (85g) serving, grass-fed beef has about 20 calories fewer than grain-fed beef, roughly 2 less grams of total fat and 1 more gram of protein. Both types of beef provide all 10 essential nutrients, including iron, zinc and B vitamins.*

Nonetheless, proponents of grass-fed beef claim the cattle’s grass-only diet imbues its meat with higher levels of vitamins A and E (associated with lower inflammation) and omega-3 fats.

A 2008 study by Leheska et al,** found that every 3-ounce (85g) serving of grass-fed beef contained 26 milligrams of omega-3 fats compared with 2.4 milligrams in the same amount of grain-fed beef. While this may sound like a lot, it’s actually not a huge difference if you look at the omega-3 fats recommendations by the National Academy of Medicine, which are 1,100 mg for women daily and 1,600 mg for men. In this context, if you’re trying to get more omega-3’s in your diet, shoot for foods high in those fats like fatty fish, flaxseeds and walnuts.


When it comes to choosing beef to suit dietary needs, it may be less important to think about the diet of the cattle and more important to focus on the cut. Regardless of whether beef is grass-fed or grain-fed, choose lean cuts for optimal nutrition. There are 29 cuts of beef on the market that are classified as “lean,” meaning they have less than 10 grams of fat, less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and less than 95mg of cholesterol per 3.5-ounce (98g) serving. At the store, look for the words “loin” or “round” in the name to ensure you’re selecting a healthier option. Other delicious lean cuts include flank, strip, T-bone and chuck shoulder steaks.



  • Ro

    Yes of course nutritional value is important and may be arbitrary, however what concerns me most is whether or not the grain fed to cattle ( and other animals we consume) is gentically modified.
    There appear to be many grey areas in the production of our food that are neither declared nor regulated.
    I believe we have the right to know exactly what we are consuming and feeding our families.

    • Jeanne Newberry

      Those were my thoughts exactly. What the cattle are eating, i.e., Monsanto grain, is what is a concern to me. What will happen is that most will stop eating beef altogether because we can’t seem to get any good answers and we don’t trust the FDA to disclose the practices of the beef industry. We DO deserved to know what is in our food!

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    • Sanne

      … Every single produce item you put into your mouth is GMO. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Ever seen a real banana before? Ever seen a watermelon from the middle ages? We’ve been GMing produce since we started producing produce. It’s not a recent thing, labs actually make GMOs safer because they allow for better control. Apparently having the right to know what you’re consuming doesn’t actually interest you in knowing what you’re consuming.

      The only legit concern about GMO is licensing, which is all politics and has nothing to do with health.

      • Thom Duck

        I swear you are the biggest fear mongering liar on myfitnesspal’s blog. Only 75-80% of “packaged foods contain GMO, certified organic have been growing in popularity and consumer purchases accounting for 17% of current grocery shoppers. They are guaranteed and regulated to not be GMO. What know you piece of ….?

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  • Grain-fed cattle are also NOT healthy! Grain is an unnatural diet for cattle, so by eating lots of grain (usually for the majority of their lives, in fact, NOT just a few weeks as implied in the article above), feedlot cattle often have numerous health problems, and suffer from many digestive issues – hence why they are then fed antibiotics and other medications to keep them from dying – or becoming too sick – before they are slaughtered. The article above does not mention this or the other ethical considerations regarding confinement, etc., nor the environmental problems caused by feed lots. There are a lot of important considerations left out of this article, which concerns me deeply (not to mention the GMO issue brought up by other commenters). Choosing grass-fed is not just a matter of whether there are more Omega-3s in the meat or not! Advising people to just “choose lean cuts” is incredibly simplistic and leaves out a whole slew of other considerations and concerns which should impact your decision in your choice of meat. I hope that readers will take the time to do some more research on this topic (I recommend the truly excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, but there are other good resources out there as well), and not just take this article as an excuse to keep eating conventionally raised animals!


    • Tim Cognito

      Insightful response.

    • Thom Duck

      How in the world do you know it’s not healthy? What you have just indicated is very similar to Sanne, a whole lot of fiction, mixed with fear. What is wrong with antibiotics? Are you not vaccinated? Is your dog/cat not vaccinated? Nothing wrong with antibiotics to cure help sick animals, however definitely wrong to abuse it.

      Their is little to know beneficial difference nutritionally between cows raised on grain or grass. What you do make a great point is the ethical treatment of animals which is by far the only reason why I choose organic or locally grass fed cows. I am aware that I am paying more but it is only to stick it to big business and support my local farms.

      • Hi Thom, I have read a lot of information about cattle eating corn – it makes them very sick – it’s not a natural thing for them to eat. There is a whole chapter on this in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, including information given by vets and animal scientists. Yes, antibiotics are useful for treating sick animals (and humans), when used responsibly. However, most feedlot cattle are fed antibiotics in their daily food every day! Yes, they are also given extra when they become sick as well. But they are fed daily doses – both to try to keep them healthy on an unnatural grain diet, and to make them gain weight faster; wouldn’t you qualify this as “abuse” of antibiotics?

        Many researchers are now suggesting that the spread of antibiotic-resistance is due almost 100% to the huge amount of (mostly unnecessary) antibiotics given to animals – not use in humans (although they are often misused there as well).

        I’m glad to hear you are supporting your local farmers and buying healthier, humanely treated animals!

        • Thom Duck

          I surely hope you are not basing your research on an author whose sole occupation is selling “health books.” He has no scientific background and no facts to back his junk diet. Their is real research on the regulated use of antibiotics on animals. For example Costco has cut back and may have terminated their imports of Salmon from Chile because of the overuse of antibiotics on “farm raised” salmon.

          Last I checked it is illegal to provide livestock antibiotics and the USFDA has imposed strict bans, restrictions, and guidelines on antibiotics in animals.

          I can’t even go to super cheap supermarkets without seeing a label that says “”No antibiotics, or growth hormones, EVER!!!”

          I just don’t buy into Pollan’s crap or sensationist media. I think people forget that you have to take the human factor and cost into making decisions on food matters. No antibiotics cost more and their are people who can’t afford organic or specialty produce and meats. If GMO allows food to be produced cheaply and save people, why not?

          I’m just saying it is not all bad. Not everything that is GMO is bad if it can feed people at a lower cost than natural. It is not bad to treat sick animals or feed them “unnatural diets.” Our water is treated with countless chemicals in order to make them safe for drinking yet we don’t bash the water companies for the 1 in 1,000,000 who may get sick from the chemicals used. If unnatural is truly bad most of us should be dead considering the way we over-consume on processed sugars, salts, and food in general. Instead most of us are fine while others are more sensitive than others.

          • Lisa Redding

            The treatment of water is a very good point.

  • Blast

    You also don’t address the issues that those of us with PCOS or diabetes face in eating grain fed beef. Or at least the advantages that grass fed beef might hold for us over grain fed beef.

  • Rich Girard

    I have a rancher friend in Northern California that raises heritage grass fed beef meaning the grass is all native grasses, nothing from seed, they are not given any anti-biotics, besides his beef being as good as any beef I have ever eaten at any price, my wife who for years had mild allergic reactions to beef has never experienced allergies from this beef the only thing we can figure is that it was the anti-biotics that are in regular store bought beef.

    • Sam Crabtree

      Rich – I think you mean “nothing from seed THAT HE PURCHASED. Almost ALL grass reproduces by seed. Probably what he does is allow some of the grass one year to go to seed. Then the following year the new grass grows from THAT seed. There are no agronomy grasses that I know of that are perennials or that reproduce without going through the seed process.

  • Victoria Luchterhand

    Pulling the video I posted is taking away my free speech. I an trying to share with others what GMO’s are. The comment that Sanne has made about everything bing GMO’s for a very long time is incorrect. Farmers and researchers have been hybridizing fruits and vegetable for centuries, it is safe and not the tame as adding Round Up in the seeds.

  • Lauryn Elizabeth

    Even if the cattle is raised on grass, or non-GMO grains and crops, it’s still killed inhumanely and it will never be good for the human body.
    Our bodies cannot digest meat like animals such as lions, tigers, or wolves can (of course). Meat and dairy products end up clogging our arteries and getting stuck in our intestines and it takes quite a while to cleanse them out.

    MFP should be educating us about plant-based diets and the health benefits of those. They clean your system, give you energy, and just overall improve your health and life. Not to mention the fact that you will be contributing to the saving of our planet and animals.

    And, no. You won’t become protein diffecient.

    It’s so funny how cattle and pigs and all of your meat gets their nutrients from plants that we could be eating, but instead, we go through an animal to get to those nutrients. Soooo unnecessary and unhealthy. Why not just eat the plants, instead?

  • Zoe

    Hello Holly Grainger, I challenge you to visit a feed lot, speak to the workers there, hear their stories about animal husbandry and perhaps analyse the ingredients in the feed the cattle are being fed. You need to expand your mind beyond the dieticians analysis of the product at hand. It’s great to have the facts and figures on a particular topic but perhaps you should add the concept of synergy to your body of work.

  • John Caputo

    If you have only eaten store bought meat, and never tasted beef, pork or chicken raised on grass, fresh hay and clover…you have no idea what amazing is. The smell and taste will spoil you for life.

  • Grain fed beef….. omega 6
    Grass fed beef … omega 3

  • Daniel Hadidi

    While fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds are all good source of omega 3s, the plant sources are not necessarily going to be much better than grass-fed beef due to the fact that humans have very inefficient conversion mechanisms of plant omega 3s (ALA) to the forms that we can utilize (EPA/DHA). Furthermore, while the difference in omega 3 content between grass-fed and grain-fed beef is probably not clinically significant, that same research found the omega 6 content to be much higher in grain-fed beef. Omega 6s are in some ways antagonistic to Omega 3s, and as a result many researchers have found a higher Omega 6:3 ratio in people’s diet/blood fatty acids to be correlated with the prevalence of various chronic diseases and disease outcomes.

    This is not to mention the fact that many individuals choose grass-fed beef not only/necessarily for personal health reasons, but because pasture-raised cattle are healthier themselves and tend to be raised in a more humane manner which also minimizes carbon emissions relative to industrial feedlots.

  • Shaun Evertson

    Every human being has a remarkable brain and even more remarkable reasoning power. The real truth is out there for everyone to discover. The path to truth is research; taking facts and data and placing them in proper scale, context and perspective. You can do it. Nobody else can do it for you.