When it comes to meat and dairy my first rule-of-thumb is to eat it in moderation. There have been a few well-documented studies showing adverse health affects with daily consumption. Be that as it may: I still heart ribs, think bacon is candy and butter will probably have to be taken out of my cold, dead fingers. One of the ways my family was able to cut down on meat and dairy, however, was switching to humanely-raised pastured and/or 100% grass-fed products. So what exactly does that mouthful mean?
Currently the USDA doesn't have a federal definition for pastured-raised meat due to "the number of variables involved." (I feel like I should be thanking the beef industry lobbyists for this one.) In a nut-shell it means animals that have access to forage for their natural diet in a pasture setting, hence pastured meat. Pigs and chickens do have to be supplemented with grain unlike cows, goats and lambs that can live just off of grasses. Make sure that you using a reliable source when buying non-organic pastured pork or chicken. The grain they are given is most likely GMO if they are not certified organic.
If meat is labeled 100% grass-fed it means that the animal has been feed and/or grazed on grass or hay (dry grass) for its whole life. They don't necessarily have to be given access to the outdoors but in most cases they are getting their diet from pasture. Meat labeled Grass-Fed could have had some supplemental grain added to the diet. Watch out for meat labeled grass-fed but then in small print- "Grain-Finished." Cows are grain-finished in their last few months before slaughter to help fatten them up. Well, that's a good thing, right? Not exactly- by eating grass right up until the end the cows have an ample supply of omega-3's in their system which will get passed down on to you when you eat the hamburger, steak, etc. When the cows are fed grain in their last few months they use up their own store of omega-3's not leaving much or any to pass on to you (selfish cow). How can you make sure that your labeled "grass-fed" beef hasn't been grain-finished: look for 100% grass-fed on the packaging. Be forewarned that 100% grass-fed, unless certified organic, doesn't mean that it has to be free of anti-biotics, hormones or pesticides.
The best way to make sure you are not paying for a misleading label is to purchase from a local farmer. These guys and gals are passionate about what they do and are happy to answer any questions and even give farm tours so that you can see exactly how and where the animals are raised. In northern climates, animals do have to be supplemented with grain in the winter months. Make sure to ask how long the animals get to graze before they are processed and if they use GMO feed. You can find locally sourced pastured-raised meat and dairy here and here.
So, why should you care what your meat eats? To make this completely cliched: you are what you eat- and what your food eats. Pasture-raised meat has/is:
- lower in fat and calories (awesome!)
- extra Omega-3's (potent anti-inflammatory)
- conjugated linoleic acid a.k.a. CLA (a healthy fat that is lowering cancer risk in humans in promising lab results.)
- higher in vitamin E
Before processed foods were so prevalent in our society, humans generally consumed equal amounts of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. This balance is needed for optimal health. Omega-3's quell inflammation in the body along with providing the building blocks for hormones that control immune function, blood clotting and cell growth. Omega-6's, found in seeds, nuts, soy and grains, increase inflammation, which is important for immune response as long as it is in check. With the SAD (Standard American Diet), we are getting way too many Omega-6's and not nearly enough of Omega-3's, leaving our bodies in unchecked inflammation 24/7, that may be leading to coronary heart disease, many forms of cancer, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative diseases.
By eating pasture-raised meat you can avoid unnecessary Omega-6's in your diet and even add some extra Omega-3's. It is still important to limit the amount of meat eaten at each meal and to try and keep it to three servings per week (or less!). These benefits are also transferable to dairy as well, but again, even pastured organic dairy have hormones that have been shown to promote tumor growth. Everything in moderation, folks! Even the good stuff. Through buying from local farmers, you can eat your pastured meat guilt-free knowing that you are supporting your community, humanely-raised animals and nutritional integrity in your food.