Grass vs. Grain: Improving the Nutritional Profile of Beef (And Making Pastured Meat More Affordable)

Reader Contribution by Kelsey Steffen
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Working within a traditional diet, we save a large portion of our grocery budget for quality meat and dairy. It’s a harsh reality, but they do carry a hefty price tag. Unless, of course, you live on a farm and can buy your own cow, you’re going to fork over some hard earned cash for these products. We’re hopeful this post will shed some light on ways to lessen the financial burden while choosing the highest quality food for your family.

(For more tips on saving money check out these posts: Sourcing Raw Milk, Cutting Costs in a Real Food Kitchen, and How to Save Money on Dairy.)

Strolling through the meat department at the grocery store can make anyone’s head start to spin. The choices seem endless, where does one even begin?

I used to stop looking at words and just look for the best price tag, then toss the meat into my cart and call it a day. These days, I’m looking for quality, but seeing $9.99 for one pound of pasture-raised ground beef makes my head spin! Does anyone else feel the same? Which leads to the question…

Is Grass-Fed Really Best?

In short, YES! But at almost three times the cost, I’m guessing you’ve wondered how much better while staring at all those packages of beef.

There are so many unknowns when it comes to the health benefits of grass vs. grain-fed: Is it really that much healthier than grain-fed? Is the price tag worth it? If not, I’d rather save that extra money and buy some organic oreos (I tease). So what’s the true benefit of this somewhatcost-prohibitive meat?

Grass vs. Grain

While all cows start out the same (drinking milk at birth then free ranging for the first few months of life), grass-fed/grass-finished cows remain on pasture (or hay) for the remainder of their life. Grain-fed cows are moved to CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or “feedlots”) between 3 and 12 months of life where they remain until they’re butchered.

Often, these feedlots are overcrowded and unsanitary. The abysmal living quarters bring the possibility for disease, so the cows are routinely given antibiotics just in case. Since the money’s in the meat, the more cows each farm can produce the better, so cows are given growth hormones to speed up the rate at which they put on weight.

And no, these antibiotics and hormones don’t magically disappear once butchered, rather these toxins are stored in the fat and consumed by us where they can wreak havoc on our bodies.

Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef

You’ve heard it said, “You are what you eat”. The truth is, you are what you eat eats, too! The antibiotics and hormones cows receive actually change their nutritional makeup. Grass-fed beef can have slightly less saturated and monounsaturated fats while maintaining similar omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.

The real difference is in the omega-3 fatty acid composition. This is where grass-fed beef is the clear winner, consisting of nearly five times the omega-3s as grain-fed. Grass-fed comes out on top again with twice the Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). CLA is known to reduce body fat, aid immune system function, and even ward off certain types of cancer.

Both meats contain ample amounts of vitamins and minerals (such as B12, B3 and B6, iron, selenium and zinc) and contain protein, creatine and carnosine (all important for the development and function of the brain and muscles). However grass-fed beef has more potassium, iron, zinc, phosphorus and sodium than grain-fed and contains Vitamins A and E (which our cells store to protect from oxidation).

Grass-Finished is Equally as Important

Be a label reader! You may be disappointed when you find out that “grass-fed” beef wasn’t grass-finished as well. Sadly, some, but not all, grass-fed beef is finished with grain. This is a practice some farmers use to both pack on extra weight and creating the preferred “marbling of fat” throughout the meat (which gives it a good “grade”). So does grain-finishing beef change the nutritional makeup?

You bet it does! The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids are completely altered after a mere 30 days on grain and many of the nutritional benefits are eradicated by grain-finishing. Don’t be fooled by tricky labeling — if it doesn’t say “grass-finished” on the package, it’s worth spending 10 minutes calling the company and getting some clarification.

Marketers are brilliant when it comes to wording on a package. As long as we, the consumers, feel happy about the product, we’ll buy! But trust me when I say beef that’s not grass-finished isn’t worth the extra money, especially when it’s not much better than the CAFO version sitting right next to it.

Making Quality Meat More Affordable

Unless you’re willing to sell a kidney to fund your grass-fed beef supply, you may feel buying sub-par beef is your only option. Not so fast, keep those organs intact and check out these tips for saving money on grass-fed, grass-finished beef:

Buy a whole cow. Are there any local farms willing to sell you a whole cow? How about a farm within a 100-mile radius? Even with the drive buying a whole, half or even quarter of a cow can be worth it. If this isn’t a financial reality, see about going in on a whole cow with five or six families, then divide it. We bought half a cow that averaged out to $3.50 per pound (even for ribeye, ya’ll!), it lasted our family of six about 14 months. Do the math — if you have the freezer space, this is probably the best money-saving option.

Become a farmer. Too obvious? Well, if you’re not ready for your own farm, look into the possibility of a local farmer who already raises cattle that might be willing to raise an extra cow (from calf to slaughter) for an agreed upon fee. Some farmers even have the means to butcher and process the meat, saving loads of money in butchering and packaging fees. Worth the mention, even if it is a long-shot!

Buy from a friend. Not an option for everyone, especially those within city limits, but do you have a friend with a few acres of land? Farmland is in no short supply up in the Idaho Panhandle, and our state offers livestock tax exemptions for raising a certain number of cattle on your property. This can be mutually beneficial as it allows a family to raise their own food, as well as getting a tax break and making a few bucks by selling an additional cow to you!

Make friends with your butcher. The last time I picked up meat from our local processor, they mentioned that offal (organ meats) are frequently left behind. Color me surprised when I asked if they’d consider selling it and they said, “just stop by, if we have some you can have it, free of charge!”

Buy in bulk. No, not a whole cow, but our local meat processor offers deeper discounts on purchases of 20 pounds or more. After chatting with our butcher, we ended up buying a 20 pound, untrimmed top-round and turned it into the best jerky! (Check out our recipe here!) Which leads me to my next tip…

Buy off-cuts. Sure ribeyes and New York strips are delicious, but they’ll eat up your budget in a heartbeat. Inexpensive cuts like stew-beef and roasts can make delicious meals when cooked “low and slow”.

Try offal. If you haven’t tried offal I feel it’s my duty to let you know you’re missing out on some of the most delicious parts of the animal. Because they’re less common, many butchers will be willing to sell them at more affordable prices. For more information on offal, read this post. And if you’re not sure how to cook with offal, check out our delicious Tacos de Lengua recipe.

Do you have any additional tips and tricks for stretching your meat budget? Please, share them with us in the comments!

Kelsey Steffenis a aspiring farmer, wife, mom of four, and homeschool educator in northern Idaho. Join Kelsey and her family over atFull of Daysas they blog about life in the Steffen household, and follow along onFacebookand Twitter.

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