We go to the local supermarket every week to pick up our groceries. A few years ago when we were starting our “health journey” this was kind of, to say the least, a stressful event. We would encounter meat labels with a thousand claims and feel a bit clueless as to what each claim actually meant. In addition, the ‘healthier’ our meat sounded, the more expensive it was… and like other fresh out of college newlyweds, we didn’t have a lot of money and definitely didn’t want to blow our whole budget on beef or chicken. So that’s when we decided that we needed to do some research and figure out which meat/poultry we should spend our precious money on. In this post, we want to share with you our research and help you break down some of the labels slapped onto meat products. Hopefully, with this as a guide, you won’t feel as overwhelmed as we did!
The Tricky Part of Meat Labels
The more we researched, the more we realized that labels don’t always lead you to the truth. Here’s a quick guide to what some common labels will say and what they actually mean.
Cage Free: The term refers to hens that are not raised in cages, but it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors. There is no standard definition of “cage-free,” but it generally implies that the birds are free to perform natural behaviors. Many cage-free claims are not certified, though some cage-free eggs are certified by American Humane Certified label.
Free Range: In the United States, this term applies only to poultry and is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. It indicates simply that the animals have been “allowed access to the outside.” The USDA does not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside.
Pasture Raised: animals live primarily on fields or in woods and can roam freely in their natural environment where they eat grass, plants, shrubs, and/or other plants that their bodies are adapted to digest.
Grass Fed: Grass fed animals eat grass or hay for most of their lives. Some farms/companies will feed their animals grain towards their end of their lives (this is called grain-finishing). Avoid this by looking for 100% grass fed. USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” It does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on rangeland. Some cattle marketed as USDA grass-fed actually spend part of their lives in confined pens or feedlots.
Grain Fed: Grain fed animals eat mostly an unnatural diet rich in corn and soy.
Antibiotic Free: Producers who want to publish an antibiotic claim must submit a detailed written protocol describing how the animal was raised from birth to slaughter, along with a copy of the feed tags or record of feed formulation. The protocol must be accompanied by a signed affidavit declaring that claims that the animal was raised without any antibiotics are not false or misleading. The agency reviews the accompanying paperwork and approves or denies the label claim.
Hormone Free: This means that the animals were never given hormone treatments. To boost profits, some farmers give hormones to beef cattle and sheep to speed their growth and to dairy cows to increase milk production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow hormones to be used in chickens, turkeys or hogs.
Minimally processed: the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.
Natural: The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” The label must include a specific explanation such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.” This term does not require that animals be raised in sufficient open space or indicate that antibiotics have been used prudently. It does not bar growth hormones. It does not mean organic. The term can mislead consumers to believe that the product is healthier and more humane than it is.
Certified Organic: Food labeled organic must be third-party certified to meet USDA’s criteria. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge. Organic meat and poultry cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics (sick animals must be treated but cannot be sold as organic) and must be fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture.
So, your meat that says natural can be minimally processed. And your “free range” chicken may have only been exposed to the sunlight one time in their whole life. What?! Confused yet? Here’s what we’re getting to: the conditions the animal was raised in can drastically affect the quality of your meat. Unfortunately, labels don’t make it easy to determine the quality of your meat. Let’s take a deeper look at some of these labels and explore HOW these conditions affect the quality of your meat.
What Does Your Meat Eat?
There are so many people that refuse to believe that what your meat eats matters. Since most humans eat grains, why would it matter if our meat eats it too? Well, as it turns out, there is a lot of evidence showing that what they eat does make a difference in the nutritional content of our meat products. And here’s why:
Cows are herbivores, which means that their anatomy is built to eat and digest grass and other plants. So, grass-fed raised animals are able to properly digest the grass/hay that they eat because their bodies are designed to. When we force feed our animals corn, soy, or other grains, their bodies don’t recognize it, it causes inflammation, and ultimately creates unhealthy cows. (Sound familiar? It happens to humans too!) Most notably, their digestive system takes a hit, causing a multitude of issues including: imbalanced gut flora, acidity, and improper nutrient absorption. Imbalanced gut flora makes the animals particularly susceptible to different infections, including E. Coli, which is one of the main reasons why farmers use antibiotics! So, in summary, grass-fed cows are able to ward off infection better and absorb a greater amount of nutrients. In turn, when our cows are healthy, so are their muscles, tissues, and organs! <–And that, my friends, greatly affects the nutrition of your meat! Let’s look at this now.
According to the British Journal of Nutrition, red meat from grass-fed animals contains higher amounts of long chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, one of these being the well-known omega-3 fatty acids. These long chain fatty acids are actually very important to our health and have a number of functions, including: helps reduce inflammation, boosts immune function, treats digestive issues, improves cardiovascular health, and much more! Grain-fed meat, on the other hand, is much higher in omega-6 fatty acids. As a reminder, both n-6s and n-3s are important in our diet, however, their proportion to each other in our diet is the more important concept. As this study points out, it is healthier to keep a lower ratio of n-6 to n-3. It is recommended that a person should have between 1 and 4 times more n-6s to n-3s. Unfortunately, our diets are loaded with n-6s! The typical American diet contains 11 to 30 times more n-6 to n-3 (which has been linked with the rise in inflammatory and metabolic disorders in America).
So, back to the meat content, grain-fed meat reportedly contains 8 times more n-6 to n-3s, whereas grass-fed has around 1.5. This is a significant difference and it directly correlates with our health! Having a higher n-6 consumption rate has been linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. These are all serious conditions that can be reduced by consuming more n-3s and less n-6s. A quick and easy way to do that, as we just learned, is to consume grass-fed instead of grain-fed meat!!! This along, with a balanced diet, can really help with smaller issues in our metabolism that can affect our larger problems in the future.
Another quick poly-unsaturated fatty acid that is important to mention here is Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA has been highly studied for its potent antioxidant activity and its positive impact on a variety of different conditions, including: cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, insulin resistance, inflammation, obesity, and more. Grass-fed beef contains an average of 2 to 3 times more CLA than grain-fed beef.
As I mentioned earlier, nutrient absorption is drastically different in grass-fed vs grain-fed animals. When animals absorb nutrients better, their tissues are healthier. That is all reflected in the meat! For these reasons, grass-fed meats typically contain more carotenoids, vitamin E, and antioxidants. Now that we quickly covered the feed, let’s review the difference in living conditions.
Is Free-Range really important?
Another important factor in our meat is that we want free-range and cage-free animals. As pointed out in the quick guide above, there is a slight issue with the labeling “free-range.” For a company to have the ability to label their food as free-range, the animal has to be allowed access to the outdoors at one point in their life. This makes finding true pastured-raised animals very difficult, as companies are never transparent. When an animal is only allowed outdoor access once in their life, they cannot achieve the greater health benefits as a pasture raised animal. Cage-free labeling offers the same issue. For an animal to be labeled “cage-free” it never needs to see outdoors to be labeled as “cage-free.” So while they may be cage-free, they do not see the sun on a regular basis. This is why it is essential for us to do our research and track the source of our products. Once again, choosing local is one of the easiest ways that we can guarantee the credibility of the animal’s living conditions. Another great way is to look up companies that allow you to back track their products to the farm that it comes from. There are a few companies that do this, so don’t be afraid to do research and ask questions!
Now this leads to the next question: Why is free-range important? There are two great reasons: more nutrients and good stewardship. Studies have shown that animals that are pasture raised have higher counts of Vitamin A and E and omega-3s. We have discussed the importance of omega-3s and the vitamins are just as important. Vitamin A alone is great for immune function, vision, reproduction, and cellular communication. Vitamin E is an antioxidant and its most common roles are in anti-inflammatory processes, inhibition of platelet aggregation, and immune enhancement.
Along with nutrition, good stewardship is also important. Good stewardship means that we are treating the animals fairly. Fair treatment allows the animals to live as naturally and freely as possible. Allowing chickens to roam free around the yard is a great way to improve a farmer’s lawn and garden condition! Giving to nature means nature will give back. Poultry and cattle also have stronger immune systems when they are living in pastures. They have a lower risk of exposure to disease in the open air! As we can see, exposing animals to the outdoors is just as important as what they eat. Living in a natural environment helps the natural functions of their bodies, which affects the meat we eat.
Antibiotics—Good, bad, or just ugly?
This topic is easily the most controversial topic regarding our meat. So let’s break it down. As we mentioned earlier, antibiotics are often needed in grain-fed animals to prevent an E. Coli or other infection due to an imbalanced gut flora, improper gut function, and weakened immune system. Antibiotic use allows farmers to preserve the life of their animals, so they can go on to produce meat for selling. This is one of the reasons pro-antibiotic farmers testify for the use of antibiotics: “if our animals are sick, who are we to withhold antibiotics?” Many farmers agree that using antibiotics is them looking out for the welfare of their cattle. Well, there are many who can and will argue that antibiotics used in this fashion is justifiable, but where it gets sticky is the other major use for antibiotics. Many farmers have been using antibiotics to help their livestock gain weight in a faster period of time or gain weight by supplying less food for them to eat. This has been one of the main reasons for antibiotic use since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until recently that we have been seeing the major effects of this action and has some people speaking out.
One major concern from the anti-antibiotic camp is that the widespread use of drugs in cattle will give rise to drug resistant bacteria. These “super-bugs” can then be spread to humans via the food supply and give way to widespread disease. This has even the FDA concerned, as they are attempting to phase out certain antibiotics. Another concern is the effect the pharmaceuticals have on the environment. As we have written before, a large concern is the drug waste dumping into our water supplies. These effects can be found in our post “There’s WHAT in My Water?” Pharmaceuticals are not fully digested and can find their way into our water supplies. This IS well documented and hard to argue against (see above post for details). These antibiotics being put into our system can weaken our immune system and give rise to super-bugs leaving us more susceptible to disease and infection.
Unfortunately, we are living in one large experiment. The cause-effect relationship of antibiotic use in livestock has not been centered around the effects on humans. Further study is definitely needed, but even the FDA and CDC are acknowledging that this is a serious issue. Farmers and the food industry are concerned that if antibiotics are completely removed, the cattle and poultry will be faced with a disease ridden epidemic. But, if we treat our livestock right from the git-go (grass-fed, good living conditions, etc.), some argue that we could easily avoid such an epidemic. It is hard to say which camp is right, but it is important to be informed. Do your own research and choose what you think is right for you and your family.
Why Sustainability Matters…
The word sustainability nowadays can cause one of two actions. It can either excite you or cause an involuntary eye roll. To start, sustainability is our duty as Christian men and women. Genesis 1:28 says, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” God has given us this earth to be good and faithful stewards of His creation. We are to take care of all the plants and animals that have been created for us. With this in mind, organic farming has its advantages on sustainability. Growing cattle and raising crops for the local community can lower fuel emissions, lower the plastic waste, and help deliver fresh food. There is much more to sustainability within the crop community, but when it comes to cattle, giving them ability to thrive naturally is essential. Being good stewards allows for cattle to live outside, eat grass, and be butchered as humanely as possible. It has been done for thousands of years and it still can be done today. There are more and more farmers that are recognizing these issues and giving us good cattle and poultry to consume.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, buying meat can be a lot more complicated than you may have originally thought! After studying this information, I don’t feel as overwhelmed when I walk into the grocery store to buy some meat. As a rule of thumb, we always go for organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, antibiotic free, and LOCAL when we can. This may come with a higher price tag, but it might save thousands in medical bills later on. Here’s where we sign off and let you make your own decisions on the meat you want to eat. Just remember this: whether you choose to eat meat slime from McDonalds or a local grass-fed cut, remind yourself that eating is more than just satisfying your brain. You NEED to satisfy and nourish your body with nutrients. What you eat matters!
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