Grass-Fed Beef: A Cheaper Alternative?

Recently, I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemmaand immediately started looking into grass-fed beef. I’m also considering the switch to naturally-raised pork. I found both at my local farmer’s market, but then I had to confront the issue of price. Is it possible to that grass-fed beef is a cheaper alternative to corn-fed beef?

Cost Comparison: Grass-Fed Beef vs. Corn-Fed Beef
On the face, grass-fed beef is more expensive than corn-fed. I compared the prices from the beef at Ralph’s with those of the beef I found at my farmer’s market:


As you can see, corn-fed is cheaper from a purely cost perspective. The price at the farmer’s market also recently went up a dollar, due to the increased fuel cost to transport it to the market. I expect the grocery store price to increase some, too, but not as much.

Nutrition Comparison
Once you consider other factors, grass-fed beef starts to look cheaper. First, there’s the nutritional element. According to Time Magazine, grass-fed beef is 35-65% lower in fat, depending on the cut. By some estimates, it has only 10% of the saturated fat of corn-fed beef and is much lower in calories.

Grass-fed beef also has much higher ratios of omega 3 fatty acids and a healthier ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Finally, it’s higher in vitamins A and E, both antioxidants.

If you compare eating mostly corn-fed beef with eating mostly grass-fed beef, it seems clear that it’s much more nutritious. Although it’s still high in cholesterol, you will ingest and store less saturated fat and receive more heart-healthy fats.

Health Cost Comparison
Corn-fed beef is more likely to contain E. coli and other harmful bacteria because of the way it’s raised. It’s also more likely to contain antibiotics due to the presence of these bacteria and the infections cows develop as a result of eating corn.

I believe that switching to grass-fed beef could reduce your health-care costs later in life. You may require fewer blood pressure and cholesterol medications. You may also be slimmer and have less fat in your arteries. You’ll have a lower risk of food poisoning. If everyone switched, we’d worry less about bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics.

Energy Savings Comparison
Grass-fed beef saves energy on a number of levels. To start with, it cooks 20% faster, which means you’ll save money on gas or electricity when you cook it.

Grass-fed beef requires less energy to produce it. A substantial portion of the corn grown in this country is feed to livestock and poultry. Corn consumes a large quantity of energy in the form of fuel for farm equipment, fertilizer, fuel to transport the grain to the feedlot, and fuel to process the grain for livestock consumption.

In contrast, grass-fed beef produces some fertilizer as it grazes, in the form of its own waste. Growing all that grass still requires some fertilizer, but not as much.

Environmental Impact
Grass-fed beef is gentler on the environment, but not completely gentle. They still produce methane, which is a huge polluter. However, they produce less pollution because you can’t raise as many of them in one place and they take longer to mature. They also don’t contribute to increased pollution from growing corn to feed cattle.

If more people switched to grass-fed beef, we’d have to eat less of it because less of it is available for consumption. More grass-fed cows would (hopefully) reduce the number of corn-fed cows, which would further reduce pollution from cattle.

Final Thoughts
Once you factor in the nutrition, health, energy, and environmental benefits of grass-fed beef, I think it wins the cost comparison. We now only eat beef a couple times a month, whereas we used to eat it once a month. For the most part, I’ve switched some of those beef days to meatless days. I haven’t yet switched to naturally-raised pork, but after seeing the environmental impact of feedlot pigs in Discover Magazine, I think I have to. Again we’ll reduce our consumption there, and replace it with more vegetables.

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