I’ve had quite a few people tell me they were looking into healthier meats and they asked me which meats to buy and where to buy them. I hope to clear that up today and arm you with the knowledge to confidently go out there and know what you’re buying when it comes to quality meats.
We’ve all seen the labels that say Organic, Grass-fed, Pastured, Free-range, Natural, etc. But what do they all mean? What’s the difference? What do I even want? Here’s a quick definition of each one:
Organic: The animal, usually cows, was not given any growth hormones or antibiotics. The animal, however, was possibly fed grass or grains and the living conditions were possibly better than the over-crowded commercial cows, but unless you know the rancher it’s hard to know. USDA organic-certification rules permit farmers to fatten a grass-fed herd up with corn, soy, or other grain-based feed, provided that it’s organic, which isn’t a practice some small farmers agree with. This grain-finishing technique typically destroys the health benefits of feeding the cows grass.
Grass-fed: This only applies to animals that eat grass (i.e. cows and sheep, not chickens or pigs). The animal was allowed to eat grass in the open fields for the majority of their life. The might have been grass-finished meaning they were fed grain during their life and finished on grass before they were brought to slaughter. They usually don’t receive any growth hormones or antibiotics, but it’s still possible.
Pastured: This gets a little fuzzy as pastured technically means an animal that eats grass, but is also fed grain. You typically see this on pigs, turkeys, and chickens.
Free-Range: Sometimes called free-roaming, this generally applies to chickens, but can be used for any animal having access to the range, the pasture, or the outdoors. This doesn’t guarantee the animal grew up outside in the sun foraging for bugs, insects, or grass. Chickens can be crammed into a barn with a small open door to the outside and still be labelled “free-range".
Natural: In my opinion it means NOTHING. The technical term is that it comes from the earth. By that definition anything you can eat is NATURAL. Here, have some cardboard.
Beef: In my opinion the best quality beef is 100% grass-fed organic and was raised humanely. If you can find this buy it! If you can’t go for grass-fed first, organic second. The grass gives the cow the best nutrients in the meat and fat. Grass-fed cows should have a yellowish fat and higher-fat content compared to the pearly-white fat and lower-fat content of grain-fed cows.
Chicken: Organic, free-range/free-roaming chicken is the best. If you can’t find it then go for free-range/free-roaming first, organic second, natural third. Chickens aren’t allowed antibiotics by law so if a supplier advertises that their chickens are raised without antibiotics it’s just marketing.
Eggs: Just like chickens, eggs labelled organic and free-range/free-roaming are the best. Try to look for these locally from a food co-op or farmers’ market if you can, but they are in certain organic grocery stores.
Pork: I’ve personally never found an organic pork product unless ordered online or from a local farmer or food co-op. They seem to never make the grocery stores. If you can find it buy it! Other than that, always try to find pork products that are nitrite and nitrate free. These are some bad guys you don’t want in you.
Turkey: Same as pigs, I’ve never really seen organic turkeys that often in the stores. Every now and then I see free-range/free-roaming turkeys and that’s as good as I could find. Do some research for a supplier if you really want to find it.
I hope this helps you on your journey down the grocery aisle and finding the best quality food for you and your family.
Nathan W. Jackson