I admit it. I was a proud vegetarian who one day found her way into a butcher’s shop and stayed. I used to look at customers pulling paper numbers from the plastic feeder and had no desire to be “them”. Until one day I became them.
Sort of … I am still somewhat wary of meat when I don’t know it’s source, still eat it sparingly and prefer it when the meat tastes more like the sauce that accompanies it. But this carnivorous awakening can not be denied and has largely been led by my encounters with the “New & Improved” cow – the free-roaming, sun-basking, fit and happy, grass-fed cow. (The irony is that this cow is anything but “new” and is the way all cows lived before we invented feed-lots and discovered the joys of growth-hormones.)
What are the lifestyle practices of a grass-fed cow?
- A diet of green vegetables (ie green grass). Grain-fed cows eat grass after being weaned, but are later fed 100% grains to fatten them quickly before slaughter.
- Controlled weight-gain. By avoiding a pure grain diet and not taking steroids, weight gain is slow and healthy.
- Plenty of exercise. Grass-fed cows need to walk to find food.
- Stress management. They roam freely. Confinement breeds stress. Think office cubicles.
- No drugs. Cows’ digestive systems were designed for grass. A grain diet, fed to a young cow, often leads to sickness and hence the routine use of antibiotics.
How does this affect the meat?
- Lower in fat. It’s closer to levels in skinless chicken breast.
- Higher in Omega 3. Most people are deficient in Omega 3 (and have excess levels of Omega 6, from grain).
- More vitamin A. In the form of beta-carotene. Like carrots.
- A deeper, meatier flavor. In part because grass-fed cows may be a year older than grain-fed,hormone-injected cows, whose growth was artificially sped–up.
- More filling. At least from my experience this is true, and I think it’s due to the higher nutrients and higher meat:fat ratio.
- Twice the price. But if you eat half as much, it’s not twice the cost.
There are people that argue over how much of this is true and even if true, how much our health is affected by it. I’m not all that hung up on the debate; it just feels logical to me that a cow that eats grass, unconfined, outdoors and is never given drugs, is going to be a healthier animal and by extension it’s meat, a healthier product.
But there’s a catch
Not all “grass-fed” cows are “grass-fed” cows. In theory, a cow could have been fed hay (a grass), in a confined feedlot, injected with hormones and labeled “grass-fed”. Regulation has not kept up with hype. Moreover, if you’re concerned about buying local, much of the grass-fed beef is South American and Australian (though Whole Foods tries to stock local.)
Bottom line: Know your cow. If you’re buying beef at a farmer’s market*, it will be local and there’s a high chance the cow led the life you think it led; if you’re buying from a supermarket, ask the meat-seller to define “grass-fed” for that particular brand. And then, if you like what you hear, buy the cow that ate the grass.
*For our NYC readers, try Grazin’ Angus at the Union Square Farmers Mkt (Saturdays), the hot dogs are outstanding and the spicy sausages defy words.
Have you tried grass-fed? Your take on the issue?
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