Have you taken a trip to Whole Foods lately for some healthy meat and had trouble deciding between natural, grass-fed, grain-finished, pasture-raised, free-range, cage-free, vegetarian, organic, and 100% grass-fed products? They all sound so healthy, and they are so expensive that they must be high quality, right? Right? WRONG! Paying any extra money for most of those labels is an utter waste of your money. Let's look at each of those labels in-depth.
100% Grass Fed
This is the label you you should demand on beef, lamb, milk, and other dairy products. It means that the cattle and sheep were fed pasture, grass, and grass-products (such as hay) and that they were not fed anything else.
100% grass-fed meat and dairy are healthy and they are far better for you than grain-fed. The omega 3 fats and omega 6 fats in 100% grass-fed meat and dairy are in perfect balance, with roughly equal amounts of each. The standard American diet contains far too much omega 6 fats and far too little omega 3 fats. This imbalance has been linked to a host of health problems including cancer, high blood pressure, heart attacks, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimers, and more. Additionally, 100% grass fed meat and dairy contain more Vitamin E and the powerful, naturally-occuring anticarcinogen CLA. For more on the health benefits of 100% grass-fed meat, dairy, and eggs, visit Eat Wild.
This label means that the animals have access to pasture at some point in their lives.
If you are buying beef, lamb, and dairy, avoid the pasture-raised label because it means that the animals were fed something else in addition to grass, usually lots of grain and possibly soy too. Beef is often labelled as pasture-raised, which generally means that the animal is eating both grass and grain. Any grain at all alters the omega 3 and 6 balance, creating fat that you don't want to eat. See the section on grain-finished to read how grain for the last few months before slaughter profoundly impacts the fat profile.
However, if you want the best chicken, turkey, and pork available, pastured is about as good as you are going to find. Cattle and sheep are built to grow and be healthy on grass alone. In contrast, chickens, turkeys, and pigs need some other food to eat in addition to grass and so they are usually fed grain. On factory farms, they eat no grass at all. The quality of their meat improves if they are on pasture and eat some grass in addition to grain.
With the pasture-raised (or pastured) label, you need to be smart and selective with your shopping. If the label is stuck on beef, lamb, or dairy, don't pay any extra money for it. On the other hand, buying pastured chicken, pork, turkey, or eggs is a good bet.
Natural sounds really good and you might assume that it is about the same as organic. It's not. In fact, it is a meaningless label and you should not pay any extra money for it.
The FDA defines natural ingredients as "ingredients extracted directly from plants or animal products as opposed to being produced synthetically." According to this definition, just about any steak or chicken breast is all natural.
According to the USDA, "those products carrying the “natural” claim must not contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients, and are only “minimally processed." Again, with this definition, most every chunk of meat for sale, such as a pork chop or a beef roast is natural.
Meat labelled as being from naturally-fed animals is not that great either. According to the definitions, a cow could be fed an "all-natural" diet of 100% corn and soybeans, producing beef from "naturally-fed" cows even if that cow never ate a blade of grass in its life.
Natural is a gimmick that is put on the label to extract extra money from you, the consumer, and you get no added value from it. Paying for it is an utter waste of your money.
This is another useless label. It is regulated by the USDA, but all that is required for the grass-fed label is that the animals eat some grass. In addition to a few mouthfuls of grass here and there, the animals could be eating corn, wheat, soy, strange processed soy products, discarded candy bars, blood meal, processed poultry litter, cottonseed, and all kinds of other junk.
Even if a cow is being fed large quantities of grass, if it is supplemented with any grain at all, the meat and milk has an unhealthy fat profile. With even a small amount of grain, the omega-6 fats increase while the omega-3 fats decrease, disrupting the critical balance between them. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats need to be balanced with roughly equal amounts of each. This graph shows how the balance is disrupted in milk from cows that eat both grass and grain. Replacing just 1/3 of the pasture with grain is enough to disrupt the omega 3 and 6 balance.
Some grass is of course better than no grass, but the grass-fed label is generally useless. The animal could eat 95% grain and 5% grass, be labelled grass-fed, and have a fat profile that is quite similar to animals that eat no grass.
This is another label to avoid. Often, there is much hype about how the animal spends most of its life on pasture eating lots of grass and is then fed grain for "just the last few months" before butchering. This graph shows the rapid disappearance of omega-3 fats in the feedlot.
By the time the animal has been in the feedlot for three months, the omega-3 fats are almost entirely gone. There is no point in spending extra money for an animal to have been grown on grass if it is finished with grain.
This label is usually applied to chickens but sometimes beef and other meats are labelled this way too. It is an utterly useless label. The USDA defines free-range with regard to chicken production and specifies that the chickens must have some access to the outside, but they don't say what the outside environment must be, how long the chickens have to be outside, or at what point in their lives they access the outside. The vast majority of chicken meat and eggs that are labelled free-range comes from factory-farmed chicken houses (see Food Inc for the inside scoop on what these are really like). To be labelled free-range, the chicken houses typically have a small area where the chickens can go outside. The outside area typically has a concrete floor, giving the birds no grass or other food to supplement their diets of grain and soy. The birds usually do not have access to the outside area except for the last few weeks of their lives. From a health standpoint, the free-range chicken meat and eggs is generally indistinguisable from conventional. Don't spend any extra money on this label.
This label is generally used on chicken eggs. It is useless, from a health standpoint. It simply means that inside a giant factory-farming chicken house, the birds run around loose instead of being in cages. Cage-free chickens might have a slightly less awful life, but the eggs that they produce are no better for you than from caged chickens. As far as your health is concerned, don't spend money on it.
The vegetarian label is often used on pork and chicken meat and eggs. Pigs and chickens are naturally omnivores. They need animal protein and do not reach their full potential without it. Feeding them a vegetarian diet is unnatural and not healthy for them. It is not healthy for us either. When they are deprived of animal protein, they are fed large amounts of processed soy, typically soy meal which is a byproduct of making heavily processed soy products for human consumption. For a long list of the potential harmful effects of soy on human health, see this summary. When animals are fed large amounts of soy, it affects the quality of their meats and by some reports someone who is allergic to soy can have a reaction from eating meat from soy-fed animals.
Certified organic food is produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides and is GMO-free. All else being equal, I would certainly choose organic over nonorganic. Organic products have lower pesticide residues. However, the organic label is insufficient to ensure healthy meat, eggs, and dairy. Organic pigs and chickens may never see a blade of grass in their lives. Organic beef may be grain-finished in a feed lot. The organic label tells you nothing about the fat profile of the meat, eggs, and dairy, other than that it has less pesticides in it.
Where to Find Products
One option is to go to a store such as Whole Foods, Trader Joes, or a natural food co-op and read the labels carefully. Look for the 100% grass-fed label on beef, dairy, and lamb. Look for the pastured label on eggs, chicken, turkey, and pork.
The other option is to find a local farmer and buy your meat, dairy, and eggs direct from the farm. This is surprisingly easy; see the Eat Wild website for a list of grass-fed products available in your area and contact farms near you. They will usually be happy to tell you about their products (ask them exactly what the animals eat), have reasonable prices, and often provide delivery to major urban areas. If you buy from them, you will have the added benefit of truly knowing where your food comes from and you will be supporting your local economy. If you are in California, I highly recommend Barbarosa Ranchers.
How to Stretch Your Dollar
100% grass-fed beef, lamb, and dairy, along with pastured pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs, are more expensive than grain-fed meat, dairy, and eggs. This is because our government subsidizes grain. Sadly, because of the misguided government grain subsidy, buying only healthy 100% grass-fed and pastured products is not affordable for most American families. What's a person to do on a limited budget? You have to spend your money where it matters the most.
First, when buying beef and lamb don't waste your money on pastured, grain-finished, and grass-fed; these labels do not ensure that the meat is any better than the cheapest meat you can find. Buy either 100% grass-fed or whatever is cheap.
Second, when buying pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs, buy either pastured or whatever is cheap. From a health perspective, don't pay extra for vegetarian, cage-free, or free-range because those labels do not ensure that the meat has any added quality. If you do buy pastured pork, chicken, turkey, or eggs, I highly recommend researching the farm where it is produced because there is a lot of variation in the diet of pastured animals. Some eat largely grass while others eat hardly any grass at all. If you are paying premium prices, you want to be sure that the animals are really eating a lot of pasture and not much grain at all.
Third, if you can't afford to buy all your beef, lamb and dairy as 100% grass fed and all your turkey, chicken, pork, and eggs as pastured, then buy your beef, lamb, and dairy as 100% grass-fed and just get whatever is cheap for the rest. There is a huge difference between 100% grass-fed beef, lamb, and dairy and the feedlot version; the fat is much, much better for you. In contrast, the difference between pastured chicken, turkey, pork, and eggs and the feedlot version is not as dramatic.
Fourth, if you can't afford to buy all your dairy 100% grass-fed, then get the products with fat in them as 100% grass-fed and buy whatever is cheap for lower-fat products. If you're buying skim milk and nonfat yogurt, they don't have any omega 3 or omega 6 fats, so the cow's diet matters less. Butter, on the other hand, is nearly all fat, so make sure that it is 100% grass-fed.
Fifth, buy your meat directly from the farmer, and buy it by the whole animal. If you do this, you can get 100% grass-fed beef for about the same price as grocery store feedlot beef by the cut. You will need a chest freezer to store the meat. However, if you do not have the cash or the space for a chest freezer and do not have the money to pay for a year's supply of meat up front, you can still buy meat by the whole animal and take advantage of the cost savings. Just find some friends and divide the meat up amongst yourselves. One of you will place the order for the meat and coordinate with the farmer and you'll all get the healthiest meat on the planet for rock bottom prices.
Note: Buying meat by the whole animal sounds intimidating, but do not be deterred. The meat will come in neat little packages wrapped in plastic and labelled with the cut, just like you see it at the grocery store. You can even specify exactly how you want it cut and have the steaks just the thickness you like, the roasts the right size for your family, etc.