Grass-finished, grain-finished, grass-fed, grain-fed—these are all phrases I hear tossed around regularly by both my dietitian colleagues and consumers I work with. However, 99% of the time the person using these terms doesn't know what it means and the idea of what it means isn't consistent from person to person, either. After attending The Center for Food Integrity's Best Food Facts Taste Tour down in Texas, I couldn't be more confident in knowing the difference among all of them—and also in how to best convey that to the clients we work with as dietitians and to the public we communicate with in the media.
Dustin Dean, co-owner of Dean & Peeler Premium Beef, provided ample definitions for grass-finished and grain-finished beef, as well as context as to why each one has its place in the beef industry. As echoed in the resources from Beef It's What's for Dinner, all beef is grass-fed beef. However, grain-finished beef comes from cattle that spend most of their lives eating grass or forage, with additional time spent at a feedyard to supplement nutrients they need to get a balanced diet. This is similar to how we don't eat one food group all day every day, otherwise we wouldn't function! Grass-finished beef comes from cattle that spend their whole lives eating grass or forage for grass, and they may also eat hay or silage at a feedyard. Grass-finished has become popular due to the marketing that somehow grass-finished beef is "healthier" than grain-finished. This is false and the only real difference is the taste of the beef. Some people prefer the grain-finished beef and others may prefer the taste of grass-finished beef.
When it comes down to it, there is no nutritional difference between the two categories of beef. It boils down to personal choice and taste preference. The amount of attention, care, and animal husbandry that goes into raising all cattle is second to none. There are a slew of checks and balances along the way by the USDA to ensure all beef that enters our food system is safe and ready to eat. Having the privilege of choosing what kind of beef is just that: a privilege. Grain-finished and grass-finished beef are healthy, safe, and nutritious options.