Updated: Sep 16, 2019
Buying nutritious, safe meats and animal products is more confusing than ever before. Walk into the grocery store and you are bombarded with various words used to describe how particular foods are raised: organic, natural, cage free, pasture raised... Many of these definitions are vague. The truth is that most people are unaware of what these terms actually mean. I want to break it down for you so you understand these terms and know what you are actually buying and why it's important.
Where animals are raised and what they are fed is important. When ruminant animals like, beef, lamb, buffalo, bison and goat are fed what they have been designed to eat (grass, clover, shrubs and other colorful things) they live healthier lives and produce healthier food.
Conventional animals raised on feedlots where they are fed corn, grains and commercial feed (none of which they were designed to eat) have much higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids than animals raised on grass. This is important because our culture, as a whole, consumes far too many omega-6 fatty acids in ratio to omega-3’s. This imbalance of essential fatty acids puts us at risk for chronic inflammation which is linked to numerous degenerative diseases.
On the other hand, ruminants that eat their natural diets have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (known to reduce inflammation) conjugated linoleic acid (necessary for proper brain function, weight loss and cancer prevention), beta-carotene (promotes healthy eyes) and essential fat soluble vitamins.
Chicken and poultry are designed to eat insects, green plants, wild seeds, berries and sometimes even small animals. When poultry are raised on a pasture they have access to their natural diets. A study done by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences found that eggs from pasture raised hens have twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and 38% more vitamin A than commercial hens' eggs.
Where an animal lives matters not only in relation to what the animal ate but also the quality of their living conditions. Conventionally raised animals experience more stress than their pasture raised counterparts. These high stress environments lead to chronic inflammation and higher conversions of omega-6 fatty acids, just as it does in humans. The low nutrient diet leads to meat and eggs that are also low nutrient.
When animals eat what they are supposed to eat, the nutrition we get from them is exactly what our bodies need to thrive.
Ok, so now you understand the importance of sourcing meat, poultry and eggs that have been fed properly and raised in their natural habitats. Now to dissect the most popular labels and marketing terms to figure out what they all actually mean…
This label can be very misleading to the average shopper. You would think that meat labeled as ‘All Natural’ were raised naturally. But, unfortunately this is not usually the
case. The FDA has no formal rule regarding the labeling of ‘natural’ products and
according to the USDA, these products can still contain additives, added hormones, GMO’s, antibiotics, pesticides and more. This label can pretty much be disregarded.
When it comes to livestock, the USDA Organic Livestock Requirements state that organic livestock must be “produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge”. They must be allowed access to the outdoors (at least 120 days per year) and be raised on certified organic land. They must also be fed 100% certified organic feed and
managed without antibiotics, added growth hormones, mammalian or avian byproducts and other prohibited feed ingredients. This is a huge step up from a conventional feedlot. But, organic grain is still grain and it is not what these animals were designed to eat.
Grass Fed vs. Pasture Raised
So what is the difference between the terms ‘Grass-Fed’ and ‘Pasture-Raised’?
‘Grass-Fed’ means the animals have been fed grass for at least some of their lives. The term ‘Grass-Fed’ is loosely regulated and animals labeled as ‘Grass-Fed’ may be finished on grains in a feedlot for the last few months before they come to market. ‘Pasture-Raised’ animals spend most of their time outside with access to grass. This type of lifestyle is much less stressful for the animal and likely produces healthier meat. However, some pasture-raised animals may also be fed grains, especially in the winter when the pasture is covered with snow. To ensure that animals have only eaten grass, as they were designed to do, look for meats labeled ‘Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished’ or ‘100% Grass Fed’ or find a local farmer who is committed to these standards.
Cage Free Vs. Free-Range Poultry and Eggs
‘Cage-Free’ and ‘Free-Range’ are terms that many companies like to use to imply that their poultry is healthier. However, these terms can imply more than they actually mean because there is no legal definition for these terms and they are not regulated. ‘Cage-Free’ means that animals are not confined to cages. Although this is better for their lives (and our bodies) than confinement, 'Cage-Free' animals still live in tight quarters, away
from sunlight, fresh air and their natural diets. Against popular belief, ‘Free-Range’ poultry also spend most of their lives indoors. The difference is that ‘Free-range’ animals have access to the outdoors. But often these animals spend little time outdoors and the outdoor space is usually not the grassy pasture we imagine, but dirt or even concrete! From a nutrition and animal welfare point of view, ‘Pasture-Raised’ poultry and eggs are the better option.
The best way to ensure that your animal products come from healthy livestock is to get to know your local farmer or rancher. If you want to know exactly how your food was raised and what they ate – you can just ask! Most local farmers are excited to talk about their farming practices and show you around the farm. Knowing your farmer creates a deeper connection and appreciation for the food you have been blessed with and shows respect for those who put their all into growing it. When talking with farmers and ranchers always be respectful and suspend judgment regarding their farming practices. These hand working members of our community have the difficult job of balancing the welfare of their animals and the economic realities of the modern world.
As I’ve learned about the importance of sourcing healthy meats I’ve been searching for and visiting local farms. The boys and I love meeting the farmers and the animals! Seeing how our food is raised and grown has given me a greater appreciation for God’s creation. It’s amazing how everything we need to live healthy, nourished lives is found in the land around us!
Some of my favorite local farms are:
· Deep Roots Farm in Chepachet, RI. Katie raises pastured pork, beef and eggs, including 100% grass fed beef. This is a lovely farm and I love Katie’s vision!
· Meadow Mist Farm in Lexington, Ma. Lauren and her husband raise 100% grass fed lamb and beef as well as pasture raised chickens.
· Chockalog Farm in Uxbridge, Ma. Wenona raises 100% grass fed beef as well as pastured pork, lamb and poultry.
When buying animal products at the store you can check out how each brand ‘scores’ on the Cornucopia Institute website at www.cornucopia.org
Mulhollem, Jeff. “Research Shows Eggs from Pastured Chickens May be More Nutritious.” Penn State News, 20 July, 2010, https://news.psu.edu/story/166143/2010/07/20/research-shows-eggs-pastured-chickens-may-be-more-nutritious
“Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1 October, 2018
“What Does the ‘Organic’ Label Really Mean” CBS News, 12, July, 2018 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-does-the-organic-label-really-mean/