Grass-Fed Beef vs. Corn-Fed Beef

Grass-Fed Beef vs. Corn-Fed Beef

Grass-fed or corn-fed? Find out how your red meat purchasing habits can impact your health and nutrition, the environment, and animal welfare.

In a far away land long, long ago our cows grazed in grass pastures, were impregnated naturally, offered milk to farmers only when pregnant or postpartum, and had their lives taken humanely for beef only upon reaching a ripe old age.

In the minds of many, this is still the picture of American agriculture, though our methods of food production and animal husbandry have strayed significantly from this picturesque agrarian dream. Unfortunately, commercial red meat production today more closely resembles processed foods and meats than an idyllic countryside. Try picturing a Ford-esque assembly line, only replace car parts with animals in progressive stages of growth and slaughter.

Starting to get the idea?

The shift to industrial agriculture or “factory farming” didn’t happen overnight, but it has monopolized American farming practices mainly because it is highly efficient in producing massive quantities of food at a relatively low cost. And one of the biggest culprits fueling the factory farm movement? You guessed it… CORN! Corn is a food that is heavily subsidized by the government, essentially meaning it is overproduced and incredibly cheap. So cheap, in fact, that it is chemically altered and used as a replacement for thousands of more costly ingredients. Corn is not only used as a sugar replacement (high fructose corn syrup) but also found in unsuspecting household products like chewing gum, craft glue, plastic bottles, and cell phones, just to name a few.

Food animals have never eaten corn naturally, but in the US they are raised on corn exclusively for the food industry’s financial gain. How do beef producers benefit?

Corn is cheap. Feeding cows off of grass increases land and labor costs needed to allow animals to graze. Corn feed can be brought to animals in feedlots using minimal labor and land resources.

Corn is quick. Corn increases growth and weight gain in food animals. Unlike grass, it is abundantly available year round. Today, corn-fed cattle typically spend 2-4 months growing and gaining in feedlots before being slaughtered for beef.

Corn is flavorful. Because animals are confined to feedlots and unable to graze, the red meat they offer up contains a higher percentage of fat. Corn also promotes quick growth, which produces the fatty, marbled meat that Americans have grown to love!

Of course, the financial benefits of corn-fed beef apply to the consumer too, which is why corn-fed beef is typically more affordable. However, its nutrient composition is far less desirable, especially for an athlete!

Nutritional consideration: Corn-fed beef is 2-3 times higher in saturated fat than the grass-fed variety, meaning it can increase your risk for high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Because it is lower in total fat, grass-fed beef is higher in protein and lower in calories. Grass-fed beef is also higher in vitamin E, and rich in essential fatty acids like omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). These healthy fats have been associated with lowering blood pressure and reducing cancer risk.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the grass-fed label does not necessarily indicate that the animal was humanely or sustainably raised. Dried grasses, hay, and some cereal grains are acceptable feed under the USDA standards, which means that the animal could very well have been raised on a feedlot, without access to the outdoors, but fed grass. Feedlots are not only inhumane (animals are often caged, branded, clipped of their tails, and forced to dwell in their own excrement), but also critically detrimental to the environment and public health. Here is a snapshot of some of the main issues associated with feedlots (often called animal feeding operations):

  • Poor waste management. Overproduction of animals leads to the inevitable overproduction of animal wastes. While small farms are able to use this waste as fertilizer, industrial farms exceed the capacity of the soil to safely manage wastes.
  • Water pollution. Storage areas or “manure lagoons” often leak or overflow, running into ground and surface water. This contaminates the potable water supply with nitrates, heavy metals, foodborne pathogens (like e.coli), and nutrients.
  • Aquatic death. Manure spills have been responsible for the deaths of millions of aquatic animals and are associated with large “dead zones” in American fresh and salt water sources. Nutrient spillage causes overgrowth of algae or “eutrophication,” which produce toxic byproducts, killing aquatic life.
  • Antibiotic resistance. Feedlots often overuse antibiotics as a preventative measure, in fact, 70% of antibiotics used in the US are used in food animals. This overuse has been associated with accelerating the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (like MRSA) that are immune to available treatments.
  • Air pollution. Cattle production is a top contributor of greenhouse gasses associated with global warming and climate change. In addition, manure held in storage tanks creates ammonia, which contaminates the air and has been associated with increasing the incidence of asthma and respiratory distress in farm workers.

These are only a few among many, many issues that come up in the industrial farming of red meat conversation, but hopefully it’s enough to convince you to spend a little extra cash on meat labeled USDA organic, free-range, HFAC/Certified Humane, or Animal Welfare Approved. This product can be more difficult to find (but not impossible), but significantly better for your diet! Here are some online resources to help you locate grass-fed/humane certified meat near you:

  1. http://www.eatwild.com/products/index.html
  2. http://www.americangrassfed.org/producer-profiles
  3. http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/tools-and-resources
  4. http://www.certifiedhumane.org/index.php?page=where-to-buy

And just for fun: http://www.themeatrix.com … Check out the above argument in the words of Leo and Moopheus!

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About the Author

Alyssa grew up in New Hampshire and is a lover of any activity that involves mountains (especially the Greens and the Whites!). She speaks Mandarin Chinese and Japanese and lived in both countries as an undergrad (which partially explains her love for Beijing eggplant, lychee, and anything green tea flavored). Currently, she lives in New York City and is working on her master’s degree in public health nutrition at NYU. For the past year, she has been working at NYU School of Medicine’s Center for Immigrant Health, and last fall was awarded the Gstalder Memorial Scholarship for her research and service in minority health. Active in the Greater New York Dietetic Association, Alyssa is working with student members to create a low-literacy cookbook and nutrition guide for cancer patients, which she hopes to have translated into Chinese and Spanish. Before getting into nutrition, she spent time working for several environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy in Yunnan, China, the Missouri Botanical Gardens in Madagascar, and the Green Mountain Club on The Long Trail in Vermont. Alyssa was recently accepted to a dietetic internship program at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in the Bronx, where she will begin work in the fall.