Today many consumers are looking for more natural, fresh-from-the-earth foods while maintaining a distance from processed foods. In the beef arena, grass-fed beef is viewed as more natural and has been increasing in popularity. Many consumers are still in the process of learning about it, so let's take a look at how it's produced, its flavor and nutrition, how to cook it, and lastly, how to make sure what you buy is really grass-fed beef.
All cattle actually start their lives eating grass, but conventional cattle spend their last months in a feedlot being fattened up with grains such as corn. The grains put weight on cattle quickly, and result in beef that has more fat than grass-fed animals. Grass-fed cattle only feed on grass and other forage plants, so they grow at a slower pace and are not normally slaughtered until up to 12 months later than grain-fed cattle. This helps explain why, compared to grain-fed beef, the flavor of grass-fed beef is more robust and gamy (in a good way). The flavor of grass-fed beef can vary quite a bit, and depends on factors such as the cattle breed, where it was raised, and, of course, what types of grasses it ate.
Grass-fed beef does end up being less fatty than grain-fed beef, and actually has a little less fat and saturated fat than skinless chicken breast if you compare them ounce to ounce. While it is healthier for you, you will have to cook it properly so the meat stays moist and tender. Here are some tips from the American Grassfed Association.
• Use marinades to help tenderize the meat. For steaks, marinade or apply a rub, then pound a few times with a meat mallet to tenderize the meat and incorporate the rub.
• For grilled burgers, add caramelized onions and/or roasted peppers to increase moisture.
• Grass-fed beef cooks quicker than grain-fed beef so watch carefully. Consider roasting meats at a slightly lower temperature.
• Use tongs to turn the meat - not a fork.
• Let the beef rest after cooking before cutting or serving.
The use of the word "Grass-Fed" on the label is no guarantee that the animal only ate grass or forage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does evaluate and approve grass-fed claims, but the government discontinued its official definition of the term "grass-fed" in 2016, so companies using the USDA program can interpret "grass-fed" in different ways. Consumers have other options, such as buying from a local farm or looking for certification by independent groups, such as the American Grassfed Association (AGA). The AGA Grassfed Standard for grass-fed meat requires that the animals are:
1. fed only grass and forage during their entire lives,
2. raised on pasture only,
3. never treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and
4. are born and raised on U.S. family farms.
AGA standards apply not only to beef, but also lamb, sheep, and bison, and producers are allowed to use the AGA logo on their packaging. Producers who participate in the program are inspected annually for compliance. A Greener World has a similar "Certified Grassfed" program that also includes requirements for humane slaughtering.
One area of confusion for consumers is the difference between organic meat and grass-fed meat. Organic livestock standards are similar in that they require animals have year-round access to the outdoors and no antibiotics or growth hormones. However, livestock can be given feed, such as grains, as long as they are organically produced. Therefore, organic beef does not guarantee that the animal only ate grass throughout its life.