Q: I know conventional feedlot beef is not good for me, but is grass-fed beef healthier than organic? What’s the difference?
A: First of all, the good news is that more people are asking this question because these days, there’s more meat—both organic and grass-fed beef—available that’s produced in ways that are better for you and the planet.
The super short answer is that meat from cows that graze freely on grass for their entire lives is the best for your health, thanks to a healthier fat profile and more antioxidants. Most (not all) grass-fed beef is also organic, which is even better, since you know the cattle are eating pure, pesticide-free grass. But organic beef can also come from cattle fed organic grain.
That’s where it starts to get complicated, but don’t worry, I’m here to explain.
Organic Vs. Grass-fed Beef Production
In the US, all cattle start off roaming around happily eating grass, but most hit a certain age and instead of a bar mitzvah, they get sold into the feedlot system, where they’re confined in a crowded space and fed grain to fatten them up quickly.
True grass-fed systems keep the cattle on grass for the entire length of their lives, rotating the herd to different areas as they chew through their meals. These kinds of regenerative grazing systems make for happy cows and also are much better for the environment, since they use fewer resources/inputs, reduce harmful runoff, restore soil, and can sequester carbon.
In certified organic beef production (that is not also grass-fed), cattle can be confined (with some “access” to the outdoors) and fed grain, the grain just has to be organic. Again, many organic producers do certify their land organic and then raise grass-fed cows, that’s just not guaranteed when you see the organic seal.
The meat from cattle that eat only grass contains two to three times the amount of conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) compared grain-finished beef. CLAs are healthy fats associated with reduced cancer risk, reduced cardiovascular disease risk, and better cholesterol levels. Grass-fed beef has also been found to have a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. It often contains higher levels of antioxidants like vitamin E and A, too.
Finally, cattle raised on grass are less likely to be given hormones and antibiotics. (That’s compared to conventional beef. Certified organic beef cannot come from cows administered antibiotics or hormones, either.)
The Bottom Line
Nutrient-wise, high-quality grass-fed beef is going to beat organic if that beef is coming from cows fed organic grain. The absolute best beef for your health and Mother Earth is meat from happy, grass-fed cattle raised on organic pastures.
Keep in mind that while the USDA Organic seal is a stamp that means the producer is being regularly checked to make sure they meet the standard, grass-fed is a term that isn’t subject to a federal standard. This means there may be cheaters using the term on packaging.
Look for trusted third-party verifications like the PCO 100% Grassfed Certification seal (which also requires the grass-fed producer to be certified organic!) or the American Grassfed seal, which verifies the cattle were raised on pasture eating only grass and were never given antibiotics or hormones.