Pasture Raised vs Grass Fed: What do they mean?

You shouldn’t have to be a dietitian to decipher nutrition marketing terms. But lately it feels like that’s the case.

I’m going to explain the difference between pasture raised and grass fed and how organic fits in. Plus I’ll help you decide what’s best for you and your family. 

First, pasture raised and grass fed are not regulated by the USDA, instead the USDA focuses on safe and not misleading food. They don’t have as much investment in animal welfare, that said, the way an animal is raised could affect the nutrition it provides. 

Pasture Raised vs Grass fed review with an image of a cow in pasture

Are pasture raised and grass fed the same thing?

Not necessarily. Although in many cases a animal who is pasture raised may also be fed only grass, and vice versa, this shouldn’t be assumed.

Pasture raised and grass fed are also not federally regulated. Therefore, standards vary across certifying bodies and across livestock (i.e beef vs. chicken). 

What does pasture raised mean?

Pasture raised means the animal has continuous access to pasture and is only removed for health reasons.

Pasture raised is not regulated by the government, but rather third party organizations, such as, Certified Humane. Therefore, pasture raised doesn’t have a consistent meaning.

Certified Humane states that pasture raised animals should have access to wholesome and nutritious feed. They restrict the use of antibiotics for growth purposes, but accept their use for therapeutic purposes as directed by a veterinarian (for the animal’s welfare). 

Criteria are placed on the animal’s body condition (such as how healthy their appearance is) as well such things as how clean their water vessels are. 

In summary, pasture raised is focused on the welfare of the animal, ensuring a clean and well cared for animal. Which quite often overlaps into their diet.

What does grass fed mean?

Grass fed means the animal was fed only 100% fed grass (forage) after being weaned from their mother’s milk.

This claim may only be applied to meat and meat products. Therefore, dairy, eggs and butter labeled as grass fed do not carry a standardized meaning. 

Grass fed refers to the diet of the animal. It is not regulated by the government, rather certified by third party organizations, such as American Grassfed Association. 

Grass fed also must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season, and grain is prohibited. However, one point of difference with pasture raised is that certifying bodies may not have such focus on the animal’s condition. 

Is grass finished the same as grass fed?

No. Grass finished or 100% grass fed typically mean the same. However, a labeled that simply states ‘grass-fed’ may not mean much since animals tend to graze on grass when given the opportunity, but it may not be a significant portion of their diet.

Animals are fed grain to increase their weight rapidly. Some sources suggest they transition from grass to grain as gradually but as early as possible. Other farms may wait until the last couple months to transition. Some farms may base it on their pasture availability. 

As you can see, without federal regulation ‘grass-fed’ labels are nuanced. Therefore, in order to be confident in a label you’ll have to do your research on the certifying body (if different than American Grassfed, as discussed here).  

A chart showing the difference between pasture raised, grass fed and organic. The restrictions and nutrition differences

What’s the fatty acid profile difference?

 In most cases the omega 3 content of grass fed beef was about double that of grain fed beef. But is this meaningful? 

I looked at four different nutrition labels of four ounces of ribeye steak; pasture raised, grass fed, organic and conventionally raised beef. Take a look at the chart below for more details. 

Based on the labels; the pasture raised and grass fed had 5 g and 6 g unsaturated fat, respectively. Whereas, the organic and conventional had 9 g and 12 g unsaturated fat, respectively. The latter two had more total fat as well.

The predominant unsaturated fat in all beef, regardless of lifestyle, is monounsaturated fat. And, there is more monounsaturated fat in grain fed beef than grass fed. 

A significantly lesser portion of the fat found in beef are long chain fats such as omega 6 and omega 3 fats. In most cases the omega 3 content of grass fed beef was about double that of grain fed beef. However, the amount is still very small.

To put this into context, a 4 ounce piece of grass fed beef will provide you with 0.1 grams of omega 3 fats. This is less than 5% of your daily value. 

As you can see, people who eat a processed diet, and who may benefit from less omega-6s, are unlikely to consume enough grassfed meat or dairy to offset their intake of omega-6s in their overall diet. 

Related: What does pasture raised chicken mean?

What’s the Vitamin difference?

The vitamin A and E content of grass fed and pasture raised meats was more than that of conventional. However, the amount is fairly insignificant to your overall diet.

In 4 ounces of beef, grass fed provides about 5% of your daily value of Vitamin A. The same amount of beef provides about 3% of your daily value of Vitamin E. Both of these are significantly more than grain fed beef, but in the grand scheme of things, not much. 

It’s always important to think about what’s NOT on the nutrition label too, such as antioxidants and phytochemicals. We know that plant diversity is best for humans, we should assume the same is true for animals. 

In fact, health is enhanced when animals graze a rich mixtures of grasses, shrubs, and trees vs. when they eat simple monoculture pastures.

This makes it easy to understand how the vitamin A and E content of grass fed beef is greater than that of conventional beef.

Is grass fed or pasture raised worth it?

It depends. I will try to summarize this in four main points. 

The first; how easy is it to find certified meat? It took me awhile to find certified pasture raised and grass-fed meats online, probably longer than you’re willing to spend. So, finding them in your local grocery store will be another problem. 

The second; there was a lot of overlap with brands that were organic, that were also claiming grass fed, and pasture raised as well. Even more often I found those that were pasture raised to also be grass fed. Something to consider.

And finally the most important, how does this food choice fit into your overall diet? If you’re dining on primarily processed foods I doubt the small amount of omega 3’s you’d gain from a grass fed steak will tip the scales in your favor.

If you’re willing to spend the money, consider a few things. First, it may behoove you to spend your dollars on steaks rather than ground beef (where the fat is more tightly controlled). 

Additionally, consider why you’re purchasing. If it’s for health – maybe grass fed is best. And if it’s for animal welfare – then look for pasture raised. But you’re likely to see a lot of overlap. 

My advice, skip the pricey meat altogether and figure out how to eat at least 10 servings of fruits and veggies daily. That would be a far greater investment in your money and health.

And, if you’re part of the 10% of the population that’s already doing that, then buy the pricey meat! 

Now, be sure to check out my write up on pasture raised chicken, it explains nutrition marketing and labeling to make shopping easier for you.

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