As you may or may not know, I am a Natural Foods Chef. What that means in a nut shell is that I was trained on the principle that the quality of our food is the most important factor in how we enjoy our meals for taste, and how our bodies assimilate our meals for health. But, what does quality really mean? Well, it’s a word that can provide different expectations for all, in any given context.
Today I want to explain to you my definition of quality, make the case for why this version of quality really is the best, and help you figure out how to go about replacing your current foods with the better quality alternatives. It’s important to note that today I will be specifically referring to animal protein. And although many of the principles outlined below can be applied to other food categories as well, making a case for healthier animal proteins warrants the attention of it’s own article.
My version of quality is: Grass Fed, Pasture Raised, Organic, Raw, Vegetarian Fed, Humanely raised animal protein.
Just to be as clear as possible, animal protein is how we, in the food industry, refer to any food produced by an animal- eggs and dairy included.
So, what do all of the adjectives listed above actually mean?
Per usual, regulation has done a number on the verbage used in the food industry today. For example, “natural” means absolutely NOTHING when choosing foods for health. By the current FDA definition, eating wood-chips and worms is considered “natural”. Which, is counter-intuitive when you think about it because my very title is Natural Foods Chef. Luckily, “natural” still has a place in conversation.. just not in food labeling. And because the vast majority of consumers rely on food labeling as their sole language to choosing what foods to buy and consume, it is important to know exactly what the FDA’s language really is. This is why, unfortunately, how you spend your food dollars is so political. So, I’m warning you, this article is lengthy and slightly political simply because the discussion cannot be held any other way.
What: Now let’s get back to the most important labeling to look for and buy: (the below definitions are compared to conventionally raised meat)
- Grass Fed: Beef. Access to the outdoors, sunlight, pasture, exercise areas. Grass fed means that the cattle has eaten grass for the majority or all of its life. Different from Grass Finished which means the cow has been raised on grain and the last few months of its life has been fed grass… some companies use the two interchangeably, make sure to do your research to ensure that it is grass fed versus finished.
- Pasture Raised: Beef, Poultry, and Pork that has been raised outdoors with access to shelter. Different from “cage-free” or “free-range” which indicates the opposite.. that the chicken is raised in the confinements of a barn or shed, and has access to the outdoors, which is different from conventional farming which has no access to the outdoors. Pasture raising allows animals to access and graze on grass, bugs, and worms. It also avoids the over-crowding that conventional farming practices, which subjects animals to the spread of disease, creates a lack of movement/exercise which causes loss of leg function (due to the rapid growth caused by growth-hormones), as well as removes the health benefits that exercise has on the animal such as warding off said diseases.
- Organic: All animal protein. No artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives, GMO and MSG free, no animal by-products or animal cannibalism (yes, conventional pork and poultry feed left over “parts” of animals to their lot), no antibiotics and no hormones (no drugs used to make animals grow faster), no nitrates or nitrites, used 100% organic grain feed (no GMO corn, no pesticides or artificial fertilizers, no protein supplements), allowed to have fresh air, sunlight, freedom of movement, and access to pasture. And, most importantly, the above practices are verified by inspectors.
- Hormone & Antibiotic Free: Beef, poultry, and pork raised without the use of hormones to stimulate year round milk production (poultry) and rapid animal growth to reduce raise-time (beef and pork). Free of antibiotics is self defined, and suggests the living environment is more tolerable to the animal meaning less exposure to fecal matter, other sick animals, feed that is not tolerable to the animal, and contaminated water.. therefore the animal gets sick less often, has less need for medical intervention.
- Vegetarian Fed: Poultry and Pork. This is how to specifically avoid cannibal meat, or for example turkeys that have been fed turkey by-products. The reason Beef is not listed here is because it is illegal to feed cows other cows due to the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease that is a direct result of cannibalism in beef production. Unfortunately the “recycling” of animal protein is cause for concern because current conventional practices of raising animal protein allows for the spread of disease, and this method has zero regulation causing potential for terrible virus, disease, and pathogen spreading. This is unfortunately when you see children affected the most: food-borne illness fatality. Honestly, it is more important to buy organic because you avoid this altogether and it ensures the quality of the feed.
- Raw: Dairy. Raw dairy is not exposed to high heats. An alternative to pasteurizing, or exposing dairy to high heats to kill off harmful pathogens in food. It is important to note here that the pathogens that are in said dairy is due to conventional dairy farming practices… i.e. all of the harmful practices that are being avoided above.
- Humanely Raised: All animals. Ability to engage in natural behaviors, no confinement, animals less subject to stress which, like humans, takes a toll on health of the animal which can also result in need for antibiotics. A direct attempt to raise animals against conventional or “factory” farming practices. Not just for vegans… this hold significant weight in the health foods world.
Why: Okay great, so now the definitions are clear. But WHY is it important to purchase these products?
- Grass Fed: contain 2-4x more omega-3 fatty acids, 4x more vitamin E (2x more than conventionally raised cattle that were given vitamin E supplements), 3-5x more (and one of the richest sources of) CLA-conjugated linoleic acid, very lean (1 serving can have the same amount of fat as skinless chicken breast). Have lower levels of harmful Campylobacter and E.coli, and get sick less often reducing the need for antibiotics and other medication. Switching animals from a grass-fed diet to an all grain diet damages their digestive system, which is remedied with antibiotics in order to prevent sickness or death.
- Pasture Raised: Same benefits as above, eggs from poultry raised on pasture have 10% less fat, 40% more vitamin A and 400% more omega-3’s. The average American eats 67 pounds of beef per year, switching from conventional beef to pastured beef would reduce yearly calorie intake by 16,642 calories. Pork has up to 200 percent more vitamin E and up to 290 percent more Omega 3s.
- Organic: The health benefits are plain and simple here, you are actively choosing not to expose yourself to cancer-causing, pathogen laced foods. Many people misunderstand the importance of organics because of the efforts by conventional farming-supportive corporation’s to displace the validity of organics. For example, if any of you read the totally ridiculous NYTimes article last year claiming that organic doesn’t really have any health benefits, you may have been confused by the true benefits of organics. Essentially this is because large food corporations are actively trying to confuse you into buying conventional products by publishing such studies. The article noted that the macro and micro nutrient profiles are no different between conventional and organically farmed foods. Although I am not totally convinced that this is true, the studies aren’t there yet to prove any different. We organic supporters acknowledge that, and still eat organics. Why? Because those are not the benefits we are seeking in choosing organic foods. I am not eating an organic piece of animal protein to have more protein content than conventionally raised meat. I am eating it to avoid: artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, GMOs, MSGS, animal by-products, animal cannibalism, antibiotics and hormones,pesticides and artificial fertilizers, protein supplements, and the list goes on. Also, I am looking to buy food that is being closely regulated, to insure quality and transparency in production, which cannot be said for conventionally raised animals. Have I made my case?
- Hormone & Antibiotic Free: If you buy organic this is included, but it’s important to note the health detriments of these drugs in food. “You are what you eat” is true for the animals as well, if they have been raised on hormones and antibiotics you are being exposed to the same drugs just by eating the meat of these animals. Unnecessary consumption of artificial hormones has been linked to cancers, specifically vaginal and breast cancer (maybe some insight to why more and more men are being diagnosed with breast cancer?). The CDC has recently (finally) confirmed that antibiotics used in livestock cause drug resistant pathogens, specifically Campylobacter, Salmonella, E.coli and Shigella.
- Vegetarian Fed: Again, better to buy organic because it avoids any problems with feed. But, vegetarian feed avoids spreading life-threatening pathogens in animals which then can end up in your food. However, it does mean that the hens have not been let outdoors to peck at worms and bugs.. aka are probably “cage-free” rather than pasture-raised. Just about availability and your buying decisions here.
- Raw (vs. pasteurized): 100% of the beneficial enzymes available (as opposed to 10% available), all 22 amino acids available including the 8 essentials (as seen in my coconut oil article, amino acids lysine and tyrosine are altered by heat with loss of metabolic availability), all 18 fatty acids are metabolically available (10 essential unsaturated fats are altered by heat), all vitamins provided are 100% available (Fat soluble: 66% of vitamin A, D, E, and F are lost in pasteurization, and an excess of 50% of vitamin C is lost. Water soluble: can result in 38-80% loss), all minerals are available such as calcium, chlorine, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulphur, and 24 or more of the vital trace minerals (calcium is altered by heat and can result in a 50% or more loss… CALCIUM PEOPLE.. lost in conventional milk production practices… remember when we were told that milk was the most calcium rich food out there? leafy greens my friends, leafy greens. Also mineral digestion relies on the chain reaction of minerals, as well as enzymes present, it’s a dominos effect of mineral loss). Unfortunately raw milk and cheese is not allowed in many states unless you own a share of the animal that is producing the milk, or unless the cheese has been aged a specified amount of time. Another reason to fight back against legislation, big corporation food lobbyists, and conventional farming practices. Check with local farms or your CSA for information about buying raw milk/cheese or purchasing a share in an animal.
- Humanely Raised: Because humanely raised meat indicates the animal was treated properly, you will receive the benefits of the above listed benefits, as these practices are widely agreed to be “proper” animal farming techniques.
The next logical question is what is the price you pay for high quality foods. Well, I can make the general statement which I believe whole-heartedly: the upfront investment is what you are investing in your health and your life. I could go on about health care costs as a direct result of conventional farming methods, but I wont. I’ll simply leave you with this: you are what you eat… literally.
If the upfront cost of higher quality foods is something that scares you off, try reducing the amount of animal protein you consume per week, reducing other lifestyle choices such as the costly consumption of alcohol, dining out, or the cost of consumerism(leisure shopping). What about that $100/month gym/yoga/spin membership you are paying for for your “health” but go to 2x a month? Exercise is important but if you’re not using the resource you are paying for, transfer that money to another area of health, and exercise outside, youtube work out videos at home, take the stairs more, go for a walk during lunch, whatever you do continue getting exercise. My argument isn’t to stop exercise, but rather that you’re eating every day, that is your humanly-natured priority, you’re money should go there. I don’t know you or your budget, but I bet if you look deep down you’ll figure out a way to free up a few extra dollars per month for your health.
Brands and farms sold at grocery stores vary from region to region, so now it’s up to you how you spend your food dollars. My general rule of thumb is “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”. Look for companies that proudly display all of their qualities on their packaging, even better look for companies that go into detail about the benefits of how they raise their animals. High quality eggs, for example, often have little flyers inside the carton showing pictures of their farms, the benefits of their practices, and information on how you can learn more about their company. Hello transparency. (I happen to buy Vital Farm eggs.. check it out.)
Next time you go to the grocery store ask yourself, “What quality meat do I buy?”, ”What farming practices am I supporting by purchasing from these brands/farms?” And, ”What companies are at my grocery store right now that are providing me with higher quality alternatives?”
There you have it. I hope this article has been straightforward, helpful, and more importantly informative to you. As always, leave comments or feel free to email me with any questions or concerns you may have.