Cows eat grass. As ruminants, they’re naturally equipped for it: their special stomachs easily digest their foraged fare. When they eat corn or soy, as they do within the confines of a CAFO, cattle require constant antibiotics, and develop acidic stomachs that foster E.coli. So why is the majority of American cattle today fed on corn?

For one thing, it’s economical – at least in the short-term. Feedlot cattle fatten up faster than their pastured kin, which means fatter profits for ranchers, and thanks to technological advances and government subsidies, feed corn is dirt cheap. Higher in saturated fat, corn-fed beef more likely features the marbling that earns an “A” from the USDA. And because we’ve grown so used to that fatty taste – and because what could be better than “grade-A”? – we’ve come to accept that corn-fed is the be-all and end-all of beef.

But grass-fed beef may be superior nutritionally (it’s lower in saturated fat and higher in heart-healthy omega-3s) as well as ethically and environmentally sustainable: feed corn tends to be grown as monoculture, with heavy pesticides, and corn-fed cattle often live sick in their own toxic manure.

Before you shuck your corn-fed ways, you might be wondering: does grass-fed beef taste…grassy? Some like the gameyness of grass-fed (it’s been compared to lamb), but others find it off-putting. It also costs bigger bucks: when ranchers can’t fast-track fattening, they have to pass on some of the costs to the consumer.

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Grain/corn-fed beef on the left, grass-fed on the right. Photo: Flickr

Cordoning off “corn-fed” makes meat-eating easier on the ethics, but it’s not a catch-all, and “grass-fed” doesn’t always correspond with other feel-good labels like “organic” (cattle can eat organic corn or pesticide-treated grass). According to Alicia Jenish, previously at Revival Bar + Kitchen, and now Executive Chef at Artisan Restaurant Collection, “100% grass-fed” doesn’t always mean the best meat, either. Jenish sourced her beef from Lucky Dog Ranch, where cattle are forage-fed but finished on grain. But Lucky Dog doesn’t pump herd full of hormones and antibiotics; dietary supplements are administered with care.

Such commitment to raising beef responsibly, whether on grass or grain, is enjoying a revival throughout the Bay Area. Fatted Calf Charcuterie, a popular local purveyor, hawks hot dogs made with Prather Ranch beef. Pastured cattle from Prather, which sells at farmers markets, are also grain-finished, but their pre-abattoir diets of ranch-grown barley, hay, and alfalfa never include commercial corn or soy. And if you’d rather your beef be just fed grass, Prather also offers meat from cattle slaughtered straight from pasture; this beef will be a little leaner.

So how do you resolve the question “what’s for dinner?” in a way that satisfies taste and conscience alike? As hard as it may be to swallow, the answer might involve eating less meat – and enjoying it more. (Check out James Peterson’s Meat: A Kitchen Education for a guide on how to get more out of your meat. Or patronize restaurants that uses the whole animal, toes to nose, in their dishes.) It might sound corny, but really appreciating your meat, and the hard work of those who produce it, puts meting out the merits of grass vs. corn in perspective.