When perusing the aisles of the grocery store, it’s easy to get confused. Labels scream out at you, claiming that the products they grace are the best of the best, the crème de la crème, listing a slew of guarantees such as “cage-free eggs”, “organic chicken”, “grass-fed beef”, and “pasture butter.” And eating healthy when it comes to meat and poultry requires extra knowledge.
It’s great to have options, and better yet, it’s reassuring to know that food manufacturers are holding themselves accountable to their customers. But, what does it all mean when your goal is eating healthy?
While it may be more expensive to eat pasture-raised, grass-fed, and organic meat and poultry products, it’s worth the extra buck for eating healthy. Red meat has been linked to cancer and it’s because the added hormones in meat increase the incidence of hormone-dependent cancers. If you buy conventional meat, it is more likely than not to have derived from a factory that confines cows to an indoor, practically immovable space, and feeds them grain, which fattens them up faster, but in turn depletes the meat quality and nutritional profile. Instead, have more meatless or poultry-less days. But when you do enjoy them, make it count. The following list gives you a primer in how to read food labels. They may change your life!
1. Cage-free: This label only applies to egg-laying hens. It means that the hens are not in a cage and have unlimited access to food and water. However, it does not mean they get to go outside. This often means that the animal is confined to an overcrowded industrial house with little room to move.
2. Free-range: When you see this term on poultry products, it implies that they are one step above cage-free, in that the animal is allowed to go outside. However, it is not clear what the length of time is that these animals are allowed outside or if the animal ever exercised its right to go outdoors. To make sure that you source your poultry from the most reliable source, look for the “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” logo. This means the farm does not allow cages and require nest boxes to allow chickens to follow their instincts and build nests.
3. Natural: You have probably encountered this label the most. When it comes to meat and dairy products it means that the food product is minimally processed and contains no artificial colors and flavorings. (The same is NOT true for other foods claiming to be “natural.”) However, it doesn’t entail anything about how the animal was raised including exposure to the outdoors or drugs added to the animals’ diets, such as antibiotics.
4. Organic: Meats that are organic come from animals who were not given antibiotics or hormones. Additionally, their feed had no synthetic herbicides or pesticides. To be organic, the manufacturer must be certified by an independent agency.
5. Grass-Fed: This term applies to cattle, sheep, goats, and bison. They must have continuous access to a pasture during growing season and must only be fed grass, forbs, legumes and cereal grains still in a pre-grain (vegetation) state. Grass-fed animals are also not allowed to be confined in a pen or to a feed-stock. They are not given antibiotics and synthetic hormones.
6. Non-GMO: Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are those plants or animals that are engineered by scientists. Essentially, GMO foods are the product of inserting the gene from one animal or plant into another plant or animal, ultimately altering the genetic code of a species. This process is a step above crossbreeding and is now emerging as potentially dangerous. It has proven to have some health and environmental risks and has come under increased scrutiny. Non-GMO foods are those foods that have not undergone this process. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization committed to verifying foods that uphold the standard of not being genetically modified. Look for the Non-GMO Project seal.
Pasture-raised: This is perhaps the best option. It means that animals including cattle, sheep, or pigs, are allowed to roam freely, breathe fresh air, and remain on the farm from birth to market. There is no confinement. This process of raising animals is also better for the environment, requiring fewer fossil fuel and enriching the soil with nutrients, which makes manure a valuable resource, not a waste. Animals on pasture are less likely to carry food-borne pathogens and are free of added hormones and antibiotics. Their meat ends up being higher in vitamin E, beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, and CLA.
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