When it comes to shopping for a great-tasting steak, it’s no longer just about choosing the right cut and grade. We now know that an animal’s diet is also an important factor in determining the quality of the beef.
The way cattle are fed can have a major effect on the nutritional composition of beef. Grass-fed cattle graze in pastures, where they eat only a variety of grasses, clover, and alfalfa. The emphasis is on providing the closest thing to a natural diet as possible. in contrast, grain-fed means the cattle might have been grass-fed at some point in their lives, but also had a diet consisting of grains, including corn. In addition to being an unnatural component of a bovine diet, grains are also higher in calories and encourage cattle to grow faster with less cost. Grass, on the other hand, is much higher in key nutrients like omega-3s and vitamins A and E, and because grass-fed cattle are allowed to graze and roam, the resulting beef is leaner and lower in overall fat and saturated fat.
There are taste differences as well. Grass-fed beef has a more complex flavor profile due to a varied pastoral diet. Lynne Curry, author of Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Beef with Recipes for Every Cut, explains it this way: “Grass-fed beef is compositionally and nutritionally distinct from conventionally raised beef. I liken it to wild game because it is leaner and its flavors and composition depend on the pastures where it grazed and how it was raised by the rancher.” and Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, collaborated on a comprehensive report on the U.S. beef sector; in the report, he says, “grass-fed
beef has a taste that’s clean and rich, and undeniably beefy.”
Learning About Labels
While the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed cattle would appear to be a simple distinction, the labeling on packages can be confusing. Consumers need to be wary of some grass-fed beef claims and to dig a little deeper. Labels that identify beef as “grass-fed” don’t always tell the whole story, and claims such as pasture-raised, grass-finished, and natural are sometimes
misused. The takeaway here is to know that cattle eat grass, but not all cattle eat only grass. Talk with your butcher, shop at a high-quality market, and look for certifications from organizations like True Aussie Beef and the American Grass Fed Association, which ensure the product is 100 percent grass-fed and -finished. You may also see third-party certifications from animal welfare groups and natural beef cooperatives. (here is more information on deciphering the labels).
Despite some misconceptions over the labeling, grass-fed beef is riding a wave of popularity in the United States, reaching an all-time high of $480 million in supermarket sales last year, up about 15 percent year over year. Restaurants have also jumped on the bandwagon, with shipments from distributors to independent and small chain restaurants increasing 15 percent last year. And the trend isn’t slowing down. You may notice as you’re shopping that a lot of 100 percent grass-fed beef comes from Australia, as well as New Zealand and Uruguay. This makes sense when you consider there is plenty of pastured land available in these countries, so cattle, among other animals, can be given the space to graze. And the year-round temperate weather in Australia, for example, translates into year-round grass without irrigation or substantial fertilizer or chemical inputs. Because the operations are large scale and year-round, this results in lower prices, despite the shipping costs.
Better Nutrition, Healthier Cattle
According to Paul Crock, a farmer whose family has raised grass-fed cattle in Southern Australia for over 20 years, “Good taste and nutrition all have to start on the farm with the right practices that are best for the animal and the land.” Because grass-fed cattle are in their natural habitat, with access to all of the open space needed to support a herd, their lives are less stressful, which means their immune systems are under less pressure and rarely require artificial assistance, such as antibiotics. Crock adds, “Animal welfare is a very strong component of what we do. The cattle are out on the grasses and in nature all year-round.”
Cattle that graze eat all kinds of plants on the pasture, including weeds. The pastures are essentially wild, with their own balanced ecosystem and plenty of help from manure, so pesticides and artificial fertilizers are unnecessary. “We take pride in leaving the land we farm better than it was, taking steps to increase ground cover and keep our native grasses year-round,” says Matt Pearce, who raises cattle in Adelong, Southern NewSouth Wales. “The environmental work we do benefits our business, too—the cows are getting better grass. We have improved our native pastures, so cows can graze fresh grass all year. That means better nutrition, and healthier animals without any need for lot feeding,” he adds. “We are passionate about what we do,” says Crock. “It’s not just about selling meat; it’s about getting our passion through to the consumer.”
On a recent trip to Australia, I had the opportunity to experience the Aussie beef industry up close. Traveling through the southeastern portion of the country, I toured several cattle ranches, met with farmers, and shared many amazing meals that showcased their grass-fed beef products.
Needless to say, it was an incredible journey. Australia’s diverse landscape makes it full of stunning, scenic panoramas, especially the rolling hills and valleys where the cattle roam. As I learned, the country’s temperate climate allows for prime grazing year-round, so the animals live a healthy life that’s biologically appropriate for them with minimal intervention. And when cattle are treated humanely and fed solely on pasture, the meat tastes of the land it came from. In Australia, that means rich and flavorful. Ranchers in Australia also pride themselves on being stewards of the land, with sustainability as a priority. That means safekeeping and improvement of existing pasture, and innovating, with water- and soil management practices, to protect Australia’s natural resources. As a country, it sets the bar high for environmental standards, and its beef says volumes about the results.
The best part of the trip, though, was enjoying the many grass-fed beef dishes that chefs prepared. Most meals were served family-style on tables set outdoors on the farmland with guests that included local food producers and wine makers. From steaks on the barbie to a homey beef potpie, there was no shortage of good food and good cheer—and good vibes around the Aussie beef industry.
How to Choose and Cook Grass-Fed Beef
It’s important to note that grass-fed beef will look different from conventional beef at the market. To start, grass-fed beef will have less marbling than conventional beef due to its leanness. The colors will have a broader range—from bright red to deep mahogany-brown—so it’s hard to use color as an indication of freshness. And the fat will be more yellow, ranging from faintly yellow to butter yellow.
Because grass-fed beef is leaner, it cooks more quickly than grain-fed beef, which is well insulated by fat. The best advice is to keep a close eye on the temperature while cooking, and to aim for about 10°F less than the target temp for conventional beef. Be sure to use a meat thermometer to check for your desired doneness, and to remember that the meat will continue cooking after you remove it from the heat.
As on most topics, knowledge is power. So the next time you’re in the market considering beef options, stay informed on how to make a decision that best reflects your standards for health, flavor, and the environment.