Is there a difference between Grass Fed and Grain Fed protein?
Yes. Here’s why:
- The whey protein produced by grass-fed cows is nutritionally superior.
- Grain fed whey has been found to contain traces of synthetic substances added through grain production
- There are specific compounds in grass-fed protein that benefit the human body beyond muscle growth
The way cows are raised and fed can dramatically change the nutrient composition of the milk they produce. Most industrially raised cattle today are fed grains. It’s more efficient, economical, and helps to easily mass produce make cow products. In contrast, the cows our ancestors ate before industrialized agriculture arrived roamed free and ate grass.
Research has shown the nutrient composition in cow’s milk can vary depending on what cows eat. And because the nutrient composition in cow’s milk varies on their diet, so does the nutrient composition of whey protein derived from said milk.
Below are the three key differences between grass-fed and grain-fed whey protein and shed light on why whey protein source matters.
Diet and farm practice
Most industrial ranches raise cows similarly during the early stages. The calves are born, they drink milk from their mothers, and they are allowed to roam all over to eat grass as well as other forms of vegetation they can find. This goes on for up to nine months.
After the ninth month, these cows are then moved to feedlots. These feedlots are exactly what they sound like: A space dedicated to making sure cows are doing nothing else except eat. To have them continue eating, they are kept in small and tight spaces, offering limited movement.
Grain-based feeds rapidly fatten the cows. These grains are sourced from either soy or corn, as these crops are easily mass produced and are almost available all year round. On top of grains, these cows are also given antibiotics to maximize growth as well as growth hormones.
On the other hand, grass-based feeding has little to do with feedlots. While you can hypothetically feed grass to cows inside feeding lots, farmers often just let them wander off within the confines of the huge farmland. Their diet then consists of whatever grass or plants they find while they roam the ranch. They’re also not injected with antibiotics to make sure they grow naturally
On top of that, the added roaming can help the cows produce better quality milk as they’re not as stressed as they would have been if they were inside feeding lots.
Fatty acid composition
The key difference between grain-fed and grass-fed milk is the fatty acid composition. For starters, grass-fed milk contains more fat-soluble vitamins Vitamin A and Vitamin E. It also has more glutathione, the body’s most powerful antioxidant.
Grass-fed milk also contains more omega-3 fatty acids, fatty acids known for a variety of health benefits ranging from brain health to lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. It also has more conjugated linoleic acid, a type of nutrient that is linked to lower levels of inflammation and higher metabolic rate.
While it does sound like grass-fed whey protein would be a lot healthier, you have to recall that one of the processes involved in whey protein manufacturing is the removal of fat. Removing fat means you’re also removing much of the benefits related to the whey protein’s original fat content. This is particularly crucial given that the more expensive whey powders are almost zero fat.
You also have to take into account that omega 3 is easily oxidized. Unless it comes in an air-tight capsule medium, you are unlikely to find significant amounts of omega-3 in your whey protein powder the moment it arrives on your doorstep.
Despite the setbacks, you have to at least feel proud that the whey protein you’re taking didn’t come from a farm that injects hormones and antibiotics to cows as well as confine them in jail-cell like facilities.
Due to the more natural means of feeding cows, grass-fed milk (and therefore, grass-fed whey protein) comes out packing more nutritional punch than its grain-fed counterpart. Research shows grass-fed whey contains more beta-lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, and lysozyme than grain-fed whey.
- Beta Lactoglobulin. This compound is what makes up half the protein content found in whey protein. Some of the benefits of this compound include immune system strengthening, lower “bad” cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure levels, and is considered a potent antioxidant.
- Lactoferrin. Lactoferrin is also a protein found in grass-fed whey. It offers similar benefits to beta lactoglobulin on the immune system as well as help fight off infections. It’s also been shown to induce cell death in cancer cells. The compound also helps prevent the likelihood of a condition called hemochromatosis, or when the body produces too much iron and causes symptoms like irregular heartbeat, liver damage, arthritis, and sometimes even loss of memory.
- Lysozyme. Lysozyme is a compound that naturally destroys dangerous bacteria. Studies have shown whey protein with lysozyme consumption can help slow the growth of bacteria like listeria. Combining lysozyme with lactoferrin has also been demonstrated to promote gut health.
Grain fed whey has also been found to contain traces of synthetic substances due to accidental contamination of antibiotics and hormones added through grain production.
The Bottom Line
While the overall protein content of those sourced from either grass-fed or grain-fed cows are identical, it is important to consider the composition of the protein itself. Grass-fed whey protein has the advantage of having higher nutrient density, a better fatty acid composition, and of course more ethical treatment of cattle. More than what grass-fed whey protein has, it’s also considered better because of what it doesn’t have namely residues and other chemicals that could come from antibiotics and other common cattle feeds.
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- Kuczyńska B, Puppel K, Gołebiewski M, Metera E, Sakowski T, Słoniewski K. Differences in whey protein content between cow’s milk collected in late pasture and early indoor feeding season from conventional and organic farms in Poland. J Sci Food Agric. 2012;92(14):2899-904.
- Daley CA, Abbott A, Doyle PS, Nader GA, Larson S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutr J. 2010;9:10. Published 2010 Mar 10. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10
- Alothman M, Hogan SA, Hennessy D, et al. The “Grass-Fed” Milk Story: Understanding the Impact of Pasture Feeding on the Composition and Quality of Bovine Milk. Foods. 2019;8(8):350. Published 2019 Aug 17. doi:10.3390/foods8080350
- Schwendel BH, Wester TJ, Morel PC, et al. Pasture feeding conventional cows removes differences between organic and conventionally produced milk. Food Chem. 2017;229:805-813.