If you’re a card-carrying carnivore like I am, but you still want to remain vigilant about eating healthfully and ecologically-responsibly, beef is triumphantly within bounds. However, the modern beef paradigm seems to have confined this wonderful source of vitamins and protein to the “unhealthy” department in our dietary minds. But once you get yourself into the know on this meaty subject, you’ll quickly realize that the real answers reside, not surprisingly, in how the animals are raised.
The debate on grass-fed vs grain (corn)-fed beef normally shakes out as a deceptively-nuanced political argument, pitting big industry against sustainable farmers and crunchy health-food watchdog types in a battle that serves to add confusion and misconception to the matter. In others words, a lot of bull. Only careful, politically-neutral research can reveal the facts about beef’s nutritional properties in relation to the type of feed that cows are raised on. That research, unfortunately, needs to be performed by each of us, on an individual basis, for the answers to be fully realized and absorbed.
My attempts over the years to perform this research myself have included discussions with various local farmers, 7 years as a restaurant owner, a nearly 3-year run on the staff of the most progressive farm-to-table restaurant in the US, the reading of more than one important book on the subject, and the consumption of many, many forms of beef, both corn and grass-fed, in the US and abroad. The results? Well, let’s put it this way: I’m grass-fed, all the way. Read on to understand why in detail; I promise it will enlighten you, and trim down your research.
Understanding The History
A cow’s digestive system is ruminatory, meaning, the animal’s natural diet consists exclusively of plants, specifically grass. During the 1940s, a US grain surplus became an experimental feed for cows, resulting in their abnormally accelerated growth (a 15-month vs 4-year lifespan before slaughter). The farming industry got used to the rapid turnover and the resulting profits. 2 generations later, corn (now, a GMO) became the most common cattle feed in the US (boosting the corn industry along the way), and the vast majority of beef in the supermarket today is corn-fed. The modern consumer is attracted to the cheaper price of commercial beef vs the more artisanal grass-fed, but at a huge hidden expense.
In the conversion to the corn-fed model, a dramatic drop in the nutritional benefits of beef has taken place. Both corn-fed steaks and ground beef are high in saturated fat, contributing to an increase in clogged arteries and heart disease among American consumers. By comparison, the leaner grass-fed beef is far lower in total fat and calories, and sports higher overall nutrition, including quadruple the Vitamin E of the corn-fed. Grass-fed is also higher in heart-friendly Omega 3 fatty acids, as well as CLA, which has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer in humans. These facts alone should be reason enough to stick with grass-fed. But there are even more distinguishable factors to consider.
Healthy Cow = Healthy Carnivore
Along with the return to a grass-fed model by certain independent farms comes a more sustainably-minded and often organic approach to cattle farming. It’s a general rule that grass-fed cows are humanely raised and live without the stress endured by commercially-raised cows. This eliminates the diseases caused by stress and cramped quarters, which almost always leads to the use of antibiotics with corn-fed commercial cattle. Those antibiotics remain in the meat, and are consumed by the end users, compromising our immune systems in the process. Sticking with grass-fed practically ensures a cleaner, healthier meat on your table that was raised with respect for the animal and its environment.
A Reason For Alarm
A chapter in the corn-fed story that we hear about often but seem to ignore exposes a more eminent danger of eating commercial beef. Cows that consume an unnatural corn diet are at risk of developing pathogens like E. Coli, which are acid-restraint in the animal’s digestive tract. When passed to humans’ digestive tracts through consumption of infected meat, this harmful biological agent is equally unstoppable, and can lead to severe illness or death. Although outbreaks are rare these days, it just isn’t worth the risk.
A Matter Of Taste
Despite all of these advantages that grass-fed beef has over corn-fed, there happens to be one universal deciding factor that keeps me solidly in the grass-fed camp: The meat has better flavor! Each time I slice into a perfectly-grilled* grass-fed ribeye, the taste brings me right back to my first grass-fed experience. The complex, savory, slightly gamey flavors are unmatched by even the best cut of corn-fed steak, sending me back in time to what beef must have tasted like a hundred years ago. If you’ve never compared these two types of beef side-by-side, treat yourself and your family to this fun little experiment. I’m guessing I know which you’ll prefer. For a little assistance, click HERE to discover some of my favorite beef sources.
*Like all lean meats, grass fed beef should be cooked no more than medium if you want a juicy steak! Rare to medium rare yields optimal flavor and tenderness.