Q: For years and years we were told that corn-fed beef was the best. Now people are singing the praises of grass-fed beef. Is there really any difference or is this marketing hype?
Bill Hearty, of Cahokia
A: It seems there’s a bit of a beef going on in the meat industry, National Public Radio’s Allison Aubrey discovered back in 2010.
She, too, wondered if there were any difference between cows that gorged themselves on corn all day and those that ambled around a pasture, chomping down grass. So Aubrey, a nutrition expert who hosts a food segment called Tiny Desk Kitchen, put your question to the test and arrived at this conclusion: If you like tenderer meat, you’ll choose corn-fed beef.
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But if you want a healthier cut of beef, you’ll look for the grass-fed label in your grocer’s meat section. It likely will be somewhat chewier, but it probably will contain less fat and higher levels of several key nutrients. As a final attraction, those who love the environment argue it’s more eco-friendly to boot.
You’ll also find grass-fed beef is more expensive, but it’s still making a comeback in a big way despite the added cost. According to experts, there were fewer than 50 grass-fed cattle operations in the United States at the turn of the 21st century. Now, Allison says, there are thousands, and the number is growing to meet the increasing demand.
That’s the way it used to be, we’re often reminded. For centuries, newborn calves initially drank milk from their mothers before spending their years like living lawnmowers in pastures around the world. Now, however, their young lives can take radically different turns.
Corn-fed cattle often wind up in huge feedlots, where they spend much time standing around, snarfing down grain-based mixes that usually contain mostly soy or corn. Although now banned by the Food and Drug Administration as of Jan. 1, you may have heard stories of feedlot owners also using antibiotics to speed growth and improve feeding efficiency. In a few months, the cattle are sufficiently fattened and hauled off to the slaughterhouse.
Grass-fed cows generally do the Little-House-on-the-Prairie thing: They spend their days roaming the pasture, nibbling on various grasses and other plants. (Of course, these differences are not hard and fast, so I hope cattle farmers will refrain from sending nasty emails. Like “organic” and “natural,” “grass-fed” is not well-defined.)
Nevertheless, I think you might be able to see the differences that may arise in the resulting beef. Just like a person who spends his days on the sofa, corn-fed cattle will grow bigger faster with more fat, which would tend to make their meat more tender. Grass-fed cattle eat plants that are more nutritious than corn and all that exercise makes them more muscular, too. In fact, when they are slaughtered, they may weigh a good deal less than corn-fed cattle, which helps to explain the premium price.
Don’t misunderstand. Grain-fed beef is nutritious, but besides often having less saturated fat, grass-fed beef has been found to have more carotenoids, vitamin E and such micronutrients as potassium, iron, zinc and phosphorus. Moreover, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists along with another published in the Nutrition Journal found that grass-fed beef contains about twice the amount of those heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids you often hear about.
Now, admittedly, those numbers are not terribly dramatic. For example, a salmon dinner will give you about 1,100 milligrams of omega-3s while a portion of grass-fed beef has only 35. But the 35 is still twice as much as you’ll find in corn-fed beef and you’ll be getting less fat, depending on the breed of cattle and exactly how it was raised and what it ate.
And the taste? In her NPR cubicle, Aubrey prepared small portions of pan-seared sirloin steak from both corn-fed and grass-fed cattle. She then performed a blind taste test on two of her NPR colleagues, Ari Shapiro and Susan Stamberg. Both agreed that the corn-fed beef seemed lighter and tenderer while the grass-fed was a “little bit” tougher and chewier but tasted “beefier.” Shapiro, however, said that despite the added cost, he could be persuaded to go with the grass-fed variety because of its added sustainability.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “The difference was not so overwhelming that I found (the grass-fed) unpalatable, but I preferred (the corn-fed).”
If you’d like to see the entire four-minute segment, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=yueCuo-r4hY.
What is Queen Elizabeth’s last name?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: After the Civil War, most states ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in short order. Delaware, however, didn’t do it until 1901, and Kentucky didn’t come around until 1976. Then there was Mississippi. Legislators there finally ratified it in 1995, but then forgot to notify the U.S. Archivist. So, technically, Mississippi did not abolish slavery until Feb. 7, 2013, when the Office of the Federal Register finally received a copy of the state’s 1995 resolution and made it official.