Friday, September 23, 2011

The Grass Is Greener

I've seen more grain-fed beef appearing on menus in restaurants. Is this better or worse for us than normal beef? What's the difference? What does it mean?

A. You're right, grain-fed beef is an interesting departure from what we're used to in New Zealand, where the vast majority of our meat is grass-fed; in other words the cows eat grass as their main food all their lives. We would seldom eat any other type of beef in New Zealand. You are most likely to find grain-fed beef on the menus of high-end restaurants or on gourmet meat websites.

It may seem odd to us but it's the reverse in other countries like the USA, where the tag grass-fed is not common but is fast gaining gourmet, health and environmental cachet. In America, as anyone who's read the book Fast Food Nation or the work of Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) will know, beef is fed on grain or corn while housed in vast, man-made feedlots. This throws up issues around its sustainability, ethics and health. It takes more energy and resources to feed these cows than it does to have cows graze in fields, and the system is designed to fatten up the cows as quickly as possible. It's worth noting, however, that the few feedlots here are quite different from American ones, in that they're small "five-star" operations aimed at producing premium beef for export, mainly to Japan, rather than being mass-production facilities.

Grain-fed and grass-fed beef are quite different in texture and taste. Grain-fed beef has more fat throughout the meat, known as marbling. Beef connoisseurs say this gives it greater flavour and tenderness. This makes sense, since fat gives food what's known as "mouth feel". Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, is leaner and the fat tends to be easy to see and remove. In terms of health this means grass- fed beef contains less fat overall, and fewer kilojoules. Half the fat in beef is saturated, and it's easier to avoid this in grass-fed meat, because we can simply cut the fat off. It's impossible to do this with marbled meat.

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