Beef Culinary Information
Americans have always tended to consume more beef than any other major protein, and although beef consumption is trending down it still remains the meat of choice by most us. Here is a brief comparison from the USDA how consumption has changed over the years (based upon boneless weight):
Beef Options & Choices
Today’s cattle farmers and ranchers are raising cattle in a variety of ways in order to meet the demand of consumers for a broad spectrum of choices. We want the sultry richness of Kobe beef, the more heart-friendly lean beef, flavor contrast with grain fed or grass fed cattle, organic and naturally raised beef…the list goes on. Today’s cattlemen include over 1 million ranchers and beef farmers nationwide to meet these demands.
Regardless of the type of beef you are looking for, all beef in the United States goes through a rigorous inspection process by the USDA. Each processing plant has an inspector and all meet is subject to strict governmental guidelines regarding safety and quality.
Grain-fed cattle represent the vast majority of beef processed and purchased in the United States. Virtually all beef start off as grass-fed, grazing open pastures after being weaned as calves. The average time it takes for grain-fed cattle to reach market size for butchering is about 18 – 24 months, and it isn’t until the last 4 – 6 months of their lives that they are moved onto a grain based (usually corn) diet at feedlots.
There are a number of reasons for this switch to a grain fed diet. First, it gets the cattle to market size faster, which results in a lower overall cost to the ranchers and to the consumer. Second, it helps improve meat consistency and contributes additional fat which adds to the meat’s tenderness and juiciness. Third, a younger cow will yield a more tender cut of meat than an older cow.
Perhaps the biggest complaint against grain fed cattle is the time they spend in feedlots, which some same is an inhumane way to treat the animal. And, while in the feedlot, many managers will give the cattle growth pomotants.
Natural Beef and Naturally Raised
Beef with a “Natural” or “Naturally Raised” label on it may not be what it you think it means. If you are looking for all natural, no hormones, preservatives, antibiotics, etc, then you will have to look deeper. According to the USDA’s definition of “natural” it simply means that there are no artificial coloring, flavoring, ingredient, preservatives, etc which are added at the time of processing. It does not include anything which happens to the animal prior to butchering!
The USDA did publish a standard for “naturally raised” beef in January 2009, but it is a voluntary standard which allows for third-party verification (Federal Register: Vol. 74, Num. 12).
Beef with a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)-certified “naturally raised” claim comes from cattle that have never received growth promotants or supplemental hormones, have never been administered antibiotics and were not fed animal by-products.
Grass Fed (Forage) or Grass-Finished
What exactly does “grass fed beef” mean? It essentially means that the animal has lived on a diet of grasses and forage for its entire live (with the exception of milk while it was young), and has not eaten grain. This type of diet results in cattle which take longer to reach market size, about 30 – 36 months (compared to 18 – 24 months for grain-fed beef). In October 2007 the USDA published the standards which qualify beef to be marketed as “grass (forage) fed”. It includes these specific guidelines:
Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.
What about the flavor difference of grass-fed beef?
Some say that grass-fed beef taste “grassier” or less “beefy”. Others say it tastes better, with a “beefier” flavor, or perhaps more “wild” or slightly “gamey”. And yet others are unable to tell the difference. I think it boils down to the specific breed of cow the meat came from, as well as how it was prepared. Additionally, grass-fed can have a greater variation in flavor due to the types of pasture they graze on, while corn or grain-fed beef tend to be more standardized and therefore more consistent.
Grass-fed cattle are much more lean and therefore the flavor you get from fat will not be present. And unlike grain-fed cattle, they roam pastures their entire life, which builds muscle tone and can result in tougher more chewy meat. If flavor is your top priority, chances are that the fattier grain-fed beef will be for you. But this isn’t always the case, so your best bet is to try some grass-fed beef from several different sources. Ultimately it boils down to personal preference, which is of course subjective.
Since grass-fed are more lean you may not be able to cook something like a NY Strip or Tenderloin in the same manner you are used to. Over-cooked grass-fed steaks is a no-no! A much faster, higher-heat sear followed with a longer, slower cook time and bastings in butter may work much better with these lean cuts, but of course that may defeat the purpose of a lean cut if you choose grass-fed for dietary low fat purposes. Cooking Light did a nice comparison on grass-fed versus grain-fed beef.
Is it more healthy?
In recent years consumers have become more interested in grass-fed beef, and there has been lots of speculation and reports about the health benefits of grass-fed verses grain-fed beef. Although it does appear that grass-fed beef does have some health benefits, here are some of the “ins and outs” on the topic.
- Has less fat and is therefore lower in calories.
- Have more CLA (conjugated lineoleic acid), which some studies suggest may be a “healthier” fat
- Have more omega-3 fatty acids (about 15 mm per 3.5 oz serving). However, beef really isn’t known to be high in omega-3 benefits in the first place so the argument may be insignificant. For comparison, an 8 oz portion of sockeye salmon has 14 times more omega-3 than an 8 oz grass-fed new york strip steak (3.3 g -vs- .23 g).
- Some studies say that the fat profile of grass-fed beef is “healthier” or better; critics will point out that the actual difference in “healthy fats” is minimal…the noteworthy difference is that grass-fed beef are simply lower in fat overall. The “healthier fat” argument may not hold water when computed as a percentage of overall fat for similar cuts (the tried and true apples to apples argument).
- Have more vitamins A and E, as well as up to 7 times more beta-carotene
- Have higher levels of antioxidants
Jo Robinson, founder of Eatwild.com, has spent a decade examining the scientific research comparing grass-fed to grain-fed animals. He points out, “If you eat a typical amount of beef per year, which in the United States is about 67 pounds, switching to grass-fed beef will save you 16,642 calories a year.” Using the price of tenderloin at the supermarket for comparison, it would also cost you about $300 more than grain-fed beef.
Despite a modest increase in consumer demand for grass-fed beef, the market is still pretty small, perhaps as low as 3% of all U.S. beef purchases.
Additional Reading: What American Cattlemen have to say on the topic.
What does “certified organic” beef mean? Unlike “natural” beef, the certified organic label carries with it a strict set of requirements established by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) for livestock. There is both a black and a green version of the label…simply different colors, they don’t indicate any difference in the product, they indicate identical standards. The Organic Foods Production Act of October 2002 sets these standards for all food which is labeled organic (http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/FactSheets/ProdHandE.html).
Here are the standards for beef:
- Cattle must be born and raised on certified organic pastures and/or feed; free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers
- Must never receive antibiotics
- Must never receive promotants or hormones
- May receive certain vitamins and minerals
- Must have unrestricted pasture access except under certain specific circumstances.
What certified organic does not mean
This label by itself is not an indication of whether the animal is a grass fed or a grain fed animal. It only specifies that all its feed has been organic. Also important to note, “grass fed” does not in itself mean that the animal is also organically raised.