Quality of beef, is “grass fed” better?

The concept that quality of meat of grass-fed cattle is better than other breeding meat is increasingly spreading, as animals that have lived free grazing and eating grass will have a richer meat composition in unsaturated fatty acids and beneficial substances for human body. However, is it always true that grass fed is better?

Many studies confirm that higher concentrations of different beneficial nutrients have been found in meat of grazing animals, such as Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), with antitumor and chemoprotective properties, antioxidants such as E vitamin, A vitamin and beta -carotene, linolenic acid and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids PUFA n-3, which give meat nutraceutical properties.

However, if grazing plays a key role in improving nutritional properties of ruminant products, these benefits can also be obtained in controlled rearing, through the optimal ratio of forages / concentrates of diet and the formulation of correctly balanced food rations.

Indeed, today, through specific strategies in the formulation of the animals’ ration, nutritional composition of animal origin products can be improved, allowing for example to modify the lipid profile of meat for the better.

This can happen right in controlled farms, where the animal nutritionist can be considered a real “dietician”, able to mix ingredients at his disposal paying attention to provide everything the animal needs, in order to increase the health status and its performance, and to optimize nutraceutical properties of derived products.

Grazing rearing can in fact have several disadvantages, including hierarchical fights between animals, the risk of exposure to herbicides on the roadside, the inevitable variability of nutritional characteristics of pastures in relation to climate weather events, the risk of infectious or infestive diseases also for possible contact with wild animals, risk of being attacked by predators or injuring, increase of fear and aggression towards humans, greater difficulty in controlling and treating in case of illness or problems.

Above all, grazing food consumption is not homogeneous and does not adapt to the real nutritional requirements of animals, which change over time in relation to age, physiological status and production phase of cattle. Some botanical species contained in the pastures, if consumed in excessive quantities, can also cause phytotoxicosis and eating disorders.

Some examples? Excessive ingestion of young alfalfa or clover, which contain saponins responsible for the formation of foam that traps gases, causing meteorism in animals. Or, in the driest times of the year, animals can suffer nutritional deficiencies due to scarcity of fodder.

To satisfy nutritional needs of the animal, therefore, its feeding must still be integrated through the administration of farm hay. Furthermore, sustainable management of pastures is necessary to avoid environmental damage.

In controlled breeding instead, the feed ration is carefully formulated, starting with scrupulous selection of raw materials. These are in fact also visually examined, to verify any alterations and contaminations and to evaluate the physical characteristics of food. This is essential to avoid the appearance of acidosis, the main beef cattle-pathology. The nutritionist will therefore know how to differentiate the rations in relation to the different production phases, to avoid deficiencies or excesses, and to optimize the animal yield.

In general, foods with a high energy density and good palatability, such as grains of cereals and their by-products, oil extraction flours, silage, beet pulp, dehydrated fodder and coarse fodder in modest quantities are generally used.

In fattening animals, it is important to administer fodder rich in simple carbohydrates and faster digestible proteins, such as concentrated feeds, which contain the nutrients that cows would choose in kind, rationed however in the optimal quantities compared to the physiological needs and with continuity in the course of the year.

In this way, the balanced diet in each component allows the metabolic balance and the right production of the meat covering fat. An optimal state of animal fattening will contribute to the achievement of valuable organoleptic characteristics, such as a better taste and a greater juiciness and tenderness of meat.

On the other hand, meat of grazing animals can have characteristics that the consumer may dislike, but they are not necessarily a sign of low quality – indeed, it is often the opposite, but they are not perceived as such. An example is the color of a darker red or the yellowish fat, compared to the bright red color and the compact white fat of the controlled breeding meat, qualities that meet the consumer’s expectations.

It should also be noted that physiology of ruminants is extremely complex. In particular, the level of saturation of fats does not vary in absolute between grazing or cereals. Contrary to the monogastric animals, the microbial flora contained in the ruminant stomachs determines the complete transformation of the ingested food. In particular, it allows the digestion of carbohydrates contained in cellulose and all other nutrients, with production of fatty acids that are directly absorbed by the ruminal mucosa.

This complex ecosystem consisting of the microbial flora of the rumen is influenced by various factors, such as ruminal pH, genetic type, race, age at slaughter, sex. Therefore, the right nutritional balance does not depend only on the type of breeding and, above all, it is not directly related to the composition of the ingested food.

So many factors affect the final quality of meat, in addition to the type of animal breeding: today, thanks to the knowledge and progress in genetic selection and nutrition techniques, the fat content in meat produced in Italy has decreased significantly, as the monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids ratio has improved.

In short, even in controlled breeding, of which we have already debunked some common beliefs, we can obtain meat with adequate nutritional properties, without necessarily resorting to grazing, fully satisfying the demands of consumers in terms of guaranteeing the healthiness of product, sustainability and animal welfare.

Susanna Bramante

Agronomist, nutritional consultant and scientific writer, author and co-author of 11 scientific publications and numerous articles on human nutrition and its impact on health and environment. In 2010 she received the title of Doctor Europaeus and PhD in Animal Production, Health and Food Hygiene in countries with a Mediterranean climate.

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.