There are many special considerations when shopping for meat and dairy products. One needs to sort through the advertisements and tricky labeling, prices, nutrition facts, fat percentage, cage-free, free-range, organic, natural, grass-fed, pasture-raised, and on and on! It’s a lot of noise to sort through and we’re here to help get to the meat and potatoes of what matters (and doesn’t) when it comes to meat sources and labeling.
Where to start, and why does it matter?
There has been loads of research to emphasize the importance of sustainable and conscious food sourcing. There is undeniable evidence that sustainable farming practices greatly reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impact of the meat and dairy industry. Furthermore, grass-fed and responsibly raised meat and meat products provide the consumer with a multitude of health benefits through vitamins, minerals and healthy fats as compared to their conventional counterparts. “You are what you eat” rings ever more true in relation to meat consumption. Antibiotics, hormones, saturated fats, preservatives, additives all present in conventional and factory farmed products have a direct impact on our bodies’ ability to function properly and maintain necessary equilibrium.
The Basics: Conventional vs. Organic
Conventional animal products are generally what we think of in “factory farming.” The animals face close or over packed living conditions, widespread use of growth promoting hormones and antibiotics to prevent diseases. Animals are fed a grain or corn diet.
Organic animal products must meet all criteria for agriculture and raised on certified organic land. The livestock must be fed 100% organic feed, no antibiotics or growth hormones, and allowed year-round access to the outdoors.
Organic livestock is widely considered a more environmentally sustainable food source, and safer for human consumption as “organic” labeling is more strictly regulated.
Grass-fed and pasture raised meat goes beyond organic in that it ensures the animal has a diet of only grass, no grain, soy, or corn. Grass-fed meat has 5 times the healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised, and less omega-6 (which can cause inflammation when consumed in excess). This is largely due to the animals being fed a “natural” diet – what they would consume outside of captivity – versus foreign grains and corn. Grass fed also contains higher levels of B vitamins, vitamin E, and a plethora of powerhouse antioxidants.
The same goes for eggs and dairy, choose grass-fed and pasture raised whenever possible, or at least organic. Grass-fed eggs and dairy contain abundant vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Don’t toss your yolk! Yolks hold the majority of these nutrients and loads of flavor!
Food Labels: What does it mean?
Cage Free: Animals are raised without cages, but offers no other indication of living conditions
Pasture Raised: Animals are given some opportunity to roam and forage, though there is no governmental regulation on how much of their life is spent at pasture.
Grass Fed: Indicates the primary food source is grass (versus corn or other grains)
No Antibiotics: This indicates that no antibiotics were administered to the animal. Antibiotics can be used to prevent disease or promote growth.
No Hormones: This label means no added hormones were administered to the animal. Important to note: The USDA prohibits use of hormones in pork and poultry. If you see a “No added hormones” label on these foods, their likely trying to trick you into buy a higher price range with no added benefit.
Free Range: This label can mean very little. There is no regulation for how much time is allotted for free range. There is no regulation for “free range” beef, pork, or eggs.
Natural: This simply means no artificial, flavors, colors, preservatives, or other ingredients were added to the food. No indication on how the animal is raised.
Fresh: The only regulation using “fresh” is on poultry to indicate it was not frozen. All other labels containing this word are meaningless.
Food Certifications: How Reliable Are They?
Most Reliable: Look for these certifications as they are third party verified, require frequent inspections, and are strict on no antibiotics/hormones administered, cage-free, and outdoor access:
Less Reliable: These claims lack federal standards and definitions, lack consistency or scrutiny, and are often used to make the product seem more valuable/healthy and thus more expensive:
American Humane Certified
Don’t Bet on These: Labels containing these words with no official seal or certification are often a work around or word play. Don’t make a purchase based on these words alone:
Animal Welfare Review
No Hormones Added
The Bottom Line
Companies will toss all sorts of labels and marketing gimmicks at the consumer to entice them into buying their product for more than it’s worth. Stick to foods that largely don’t require a label (an apple is an apple) and keep an eye out for the certifications pictured above to ensure the integrity of the product.
Buy grass-fed whenever possible – organic if you can’t find grass-fed – to ensure a lower consumption of antibiotics and hormones. Buy locally to further reduce the carbon footprint of consuming animals products, though these factors often mean a higher price tag at the market. When cost is an issue, opt for lower fat content across the board, as fat tends to store chemical additives more than non-fatty tissue. Furthermore, save money by adjusting your meat portions, considering it a side rather than main component or foregoing meat altogether some days, and opt for completely plant-based instead.
The Big Picture
The fact of the matter is, most Americans eat way too much meat. Try incorporating plant sources of protein (lentils, beans, soy) and when desired, go with sustainably raised fish, poultry or turkey, and eggs. Save red meat for a special occasion or when you’re really craving it, but no more than 1-2 servings per week. Skip processed meats entirely (think hot dogs, salami, pepperoni) if possible, as they contain loads of cancer-causing carcinogens.
Being conscious of food sourcing and consumption can be stressful. Do the best you can. Remain mindful, but don’t lose sight of the value in enjoying and celebrating food as a vibrant human experience. Generally, a diet focused on a variety of plant-based, whole foods and moderate servings of meat (think of meat as a condiment to go along side your veggies!) will ensure adequate nutrition with loads of variety for every taste.
NASM Nutrition Certification: Organic, Grass-Fed, and Pasture-Raised.
Hyman, Mark. “What the Heck Should I Eat?” Feb 2018.
“One Green Planet: Mark Bittman on Eating Less Meat, the Problem with Dietary labels, and Why Chefs Need to Go Away.”
Hyatt Training is a collective of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon.