Opinions on what a healthy diet should look like vary widely, and even doctors and health organizations can’t agree on a single, optimal meal plan. If you’re reading this, however, you most likely already believe that meat is an important component of human nutrition. It’s full of protein, zinc, iron, B vitamins, and many other important micronutrients.
But what you may not realize is that not all meat is created equal (and we’re not talking about in a “chicken vs. pork” sort of way). How animals are raised can make a big difference. When animals have space and opportunity to behave the way their genetics have programmed them and are able to eat the foods that evolution designed them to eat, they produce higher-quality meat. And that means a healthier meal for you and your family.
A better nutritional profile
Meat from grass-fed and pasture-raised animals is more nutritious than meat from conventionally raised animals. In the case of beef and lamb, grass-fed animals put on significantly less fat than corn-fed ones, and a greater percentage of this fat comes from omega-3s, the beneficial fatty acids that many Americans don’t eat enough of relative to the amount of omega-6s they consume. Grass-fed beef and lamb also contain three to five times as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fat with anti-inflammatory properties that’s believed to reduce cancer and heart disease risk, as their conventionally raised counterparts.
For pastured pork and poultry, total fat content is much closer to, but still usually a bit lower than, the amount of total fat in factory-farmed animals. However, as with grass-fed beef and lamb, the fat of pastured pork and poultry contains a greater percentage of omega-3s.
Thanks to their ability to graze and forage, grass-fed beef and lamb and pasture-raised pork and poultry also contain higher levels of beta carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) and vitamin E, and higher levels of certain minerals, such as selenium.
No hormones or antibiotics
What isn’t in pasture-raised meat can also impact human health. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asserts that the animal growth hormones and pesticides (either sprayed directly on the animals or used when growing corn, soy, and other feed ingredients) so heavily used in conventional agriculture do not pose a health risk, many consumers are concerned that these substances can bioaccumulate in the meat—especially in an animal’s fat—and cause hormone and immune function disruptions in people who consume the meat.
Almost all small-scale farms refrain from using growth hormones and antibiotics, and although pesticides may still be used on pasture land and be present in nonorganic chicken or pig feed, there’s a much greater likelihood that these farms practice organic practices, even if they are not officially certified organic.
The feed used in commercial poultry operations may also contain an arsenic-based additive (used to hasten growth, improve meat color, and kill parasites) that critics believe can easily bioaccumulate to toxic levels. Feed purchased at local feed stores or made by the farm itself is unlikely to contain arsenic.
On a larger scale, this type of meat is also far better for public health because it does not contribute to the creation and spread of drug-resistant “superbugs” that can infect both livestock and humans. The FDA estimates that about 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States today are given to conventionally raised livestock animals. Some, such as tetracycline, are given at small, “sub-therapeutic” doses because they improve weight gain. Others are administered in order to combat infections associated with crowded and unsanitary CAFO conditions and feeding corn-based diets to ruminants. Corn acidifies the rumen (the first of four stomach chambers) of cattle and sheep and disrupts its normal functioning, which causes liver damage and makes the animals more susceptible to infection with bacteria like E. coli and parasites like coccidia.
The more an antibiotic is used, the more likely pathogens will become resistant to that particular antibiotic. This means that, in the future, different, stronger drugs must be used against the resistant pathogen, and infections become much more difficult—sometimes impossible—to treat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists antibiotic resistance as one of the most urgent threats to public health today. Because antibiotics and hormones are almost never given to grass-fed and pastured animals raised on small farms, these operations are not contributing to this ever-worsening public health issue.
A final caveat
It can, however, be difficult to quantify exactly how much healthier grass-fed and pasture-raised meat is compared to meat produced through conventional agriculture. The reason for this is the fact that an animal’s meat is only as nutritious as the food it consumes, and unlike conventionally raised animals that are fed a standardized diet to ensure consistency from one feedlot to another, the diets of pastured animals can vary significantly from one small farm to another. The local weather and mineral content of the soil will impact the types and quality of the forage and, by extension, the composition and nutritional content of the meat. Similarly, a pastured pig supplemented with a corn-based feed will have a somewhat different meat composition than one supplemented with whey and acorns.
When it comes to the meat you eat, there’s more to think about than just your health. Check out Chapter 1 of There’s a Cow in My Freezer to learn more about how buying from sustainable and ethical local farms is better for animal welfare, the community, and the environment.