I won’t ruin your day by telling you how your hamburger gets to your plate. But if you have a picture in your mind of cattle grazing serenely in a green and lovely pasture, I can tell you that most of them raised for food in the United States aren’t so lucky. But the burgeoning market for meat from grass-fed cattle is more in tune with our visions of how the animals should be raised and fed. And it turns out that grass-fed beef is better for us than burgers, steaks or pot roasts from conventionally raised cattle.
First of all, while conventionally raised animals do get to eat some grass when they’re young, they’re switched to grains (mostly corn) when they’re about six months old. The grain helps fatten them up “so that they can go to the slaughter house as quickly and as profitably as possible, on average between 14 and 18 months of age,” The New York Times reported in June. As part of this process, they’re also fed antibiotics and growth hormones. Second, meat from grass-fed cattle is better for us. It is lower in saturated fat than meat from cattle fed on grain and isn’t routinely dosed with antibiotics and growth hormones. And, unlike meat from conventionally raised cattle, grass-fed beef gives us more of the omega-3 fatty acids that we need for brain and heart health. In addition, grass-fed beef provides vitamin E and conjugated linoleic acid, which also benefit human health. (Incidentally, most organically raised cattle don’t necessarily graze on grass – most are fed organic grains.) Another plus: grass-fed beef is often lower in calories than the conventional variety. The average American eats 67 pounds of beef per year. At that rate, switching to grass-fed beef should cut your annual calorie intake by 16,642 (the equivalent of 4.75 pounds).
As far as taste is concerned, grass-fed beef has a stronger flavor than we’re accustomed to in meat. It also may be a little less tender than the steaks you’re used to eating. However, in a taste test a few years ago, Slate magazine’s volunteers found grass-fed beef the big winner in comparison to prime steaks including $40 per pound Wagyu beef, the same breed the Japanese use for their famous Kobe beef (those cattle are massaged with sake to keep their muscles tender; their feed is purportedly made from a secret recipe that includes beer).
It is true that grass-fed beef is more expensive than most of the beef sold in supermarkets, but there’s some interesting evidence that Americans are increasingly willing to pay more for food they view as sustainable, healthier, more nutritious, better tasting and better for the environment than conventionally raised animal products. And there is no doubt that the grass-fed beef market is growing fast, from a retail value of $2 million a year in the late 1990s to $2.5 billion last year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
If you get sticker-shock when pricing grass-fed beef at the supermarket or specialty food stores, you can save a few bucks with the following tips:
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