Making your selection at the butcher counter can sometimes feel like trying to decipher top secret government code. Actually…it kind of is. Companies know that most people are trying to make their purchases based on what’s healthiest for their family. In order to keep them honest, terms like “grass-fed” and “cage-free’, are all defined based on very specific parameters defined by the USDA. In order to claim your product as one of these particular labels, it has to meet certain criteria. Sounds simple enough right?
The confusion ensues when these companies are constantly coming up with new terms. Many of these new terms are designed to make the product seem better while actually making those parameters more lenient. These sneaky marketing tricks are designed to make you feel like your food is healthy–even when it may not be the best choice. It can be incredibly difficult to keep up. I know because I too have been hopelessly confused by labels — and I do this for a living!
Here’s the low-down on how to read between the lines and make sure you’re getting what you pay for when it comes to the meat you eat.
You’re likely familiar with the term “organic”. When it comes to meat, all the typical rules apply. No inorganic chemical pesticides can be used, no antibiotics/hormones, and no GMO feed. For me, organic is a bare minimum requirement for any type of beef or poultry product.
This term only serves the purpose of attempting to make you feel good about the product. It’s package often features an earthy green color scheme to drive it home. Don’t be fooled! “Natural” has absolutely no weight when it comes to the quality or safety of foods like meat.
Cows are meant to eat grass. Period. They are not designed to eat corn or the number of crazy things, such as skittles or sawdust, that factory farms add to their diets. Cows that eat grass have a much better nutrient density, less body fat, and lower inflammation. Just like humans, cows that are fed suboptimal diets are in a disease state. When you eat a sick animal, it’s passed along down the food chain.
This labeling simply mean that at one point in its life, a cow was fed grass. This is pretty misleading as even factory farming feeds their calf’s grass when they’re young. With the increased demand of grass fed beef, farmers have begun to supplement with grass just to claim “grass fed”. A majority of these cows are fattened up with corn in the months leading up to slaughter. Take this label with a grain of salt.
100% Grass Fed
When a beef product is labeled 100% grass fed (also sometimes called “grass finished) you know the animal ate grass for the entirety of it’s life. This meat will have higher levels of essential fatty acids such as CLA, which helps burn fat and increase metabolism. 100% grass fed meat will be much denser in overall nutrients.
Because of their smaller size, and lower nutrient demands, factory farms have been able to get away with a lot of mistreatment of these animals. Even if that doesn’t bother you on an ethical level, it should bother you if care about your health. When you eat an animal, you’re literally building your cells from their tissue. If the animal is diseased, that disease state is being transcribed into your DNA. Just like in humans, stress quickly induces a disease state. If you want to be a healthy omnivores, the goal is to eat healthy and happy poultry products.
This term is so misleading!! Imagine a large warehouse packed full of chickens in no cages. Technically, that is what qualifies as cage free! Chickens in these conditions can actually experience more stress than caged because they’re literally on top of each other. Some of these animals are so sick they can barely move. Their “access to the outdoors” is limited to an incredibly small fenced lot.
Sounds really nice but the catch is that chickens aren’t actually vegetarians! A large part of their natural diet is made up of grubs and bugs. Seeing vegetarian fed is a great indicator that the chicken likely had zero access to an environment that would allow them this vital addition to their diet.
This means that the chickens had ample access to the outdoors and spends most of it’s like in an open air pasture. They’re free to roam and drastically reduced levels of stress, making them the healthiest option. It’s important to note that not all pastured operations are created equally! Pay attention to the quality of poultry and eggs you buy. An easy way to tell a high quality egg is to examine the yolk. It should be deep orange, plump, and maintain its shape when the egg is cracked.
Keep it simple
If this feels overwhelming, I understand! Not only is it a lot to remember, it can be a bit pricey too. The biggest push back I get when discussing meat quality with clients is cost. It’s hard for a lot of people to grasp because, with meat, you can’t always see the difference. That factory farmed chicken might look identical to the pastured organic chicken, but they’re vastly different when it comes to your health. Always keep in mind, when you look at a meat product at the grocery store, you’re only seeing at a minuscule piece of the puzzle.
Buying better meat doesn’t have to break the bank. The goal is to up the quality but lower the quantity. Once you begin eating higher quality meat, you’ll start to notice the difference. Not only does this meat taste better, but it actually fills your needs much more efficiently. Because your nutrient needs are being met, you’ll find you need a lot less to be satisfied.
Start slow! Get to know a few brands you feel you can trust and aim to stick to them when purchasing meat. Always be mindful. Pay attention to what your body truly needs vs. what it’s just accustomed to out of habit.