Recently I wrote an in depth article on how to buy healthy chicken and eggs. The next installment of the Source Matters series addresses how to buy healthy meats. These guidelines apply to all of the ruminants: cows, sheep, goats, bison, lamb and others – simply buying healthy meats.
Rumination refers to the process of chewing up, partially digesting, regurgitating, then rechewing a plant-based diet to aid in the animal’s digestion. Of course, what the animal eats also matters. Let’s dive into the reasons that the cow’s food is so important to your health, and then look at how to find the best nutrition you can.
WHAT MAKES HEALTHY MEATS?
Just like in humans, grain-fed animals have an extremely high amount of inflammation. This inflammation leads to a high amount of inflammatory omega-6 fats in the tissues of the animals, and these fats are transferred to us when we eat them. When animals eat the the things they are supposed to, like grass, clovers, shrubs and other colorful things, (how many colorful grains can you think of?) they end up with a much higher level and density of nutrients. These include beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (good for brain function, weight loss and cancer prevention), beta-carotene (good for eyes) and essential fat soluble vitamins (good for everything). The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids (bad:good) is 6:1 in grain-fed cows and closer to 1:1 in grass fed cows. This is very important because 1:1 is near the ratio the human diet should be.
Odd how when animals eat what they’re supposed to, the nutrition we get from them is what we actually need, huh?
GRAIN FED (CAFO)
Just like chicken, the majority of beef you will find will be from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). A large number of these operation aren’t only feeding these animals inflammatory grains, corn, and soy-based products, but also candy. Yes, candy. And plastic. Oh, and also the ground up byproducts of the sick animals that die in the feedlot. That too.
CAFO animals are also commonly fed antibiotics and growth hormone. Why is this necessary? Because the animals are kept in such close quarters and fed such an awful diet, they get sick very easily (just like humans). When they sick, they contract illnesses (and need antibiotics) and they are malnourished so they don’t grow as large (so they’re given growth hormones). These chemical compounds are stored in the meat and passed down to the consumer.
Chances are, if your label doesn’t say where the meat came from, this is what you’re getting. These are NOT healthy meats. These are very inflammatory if high in fat content.
GRASS FED GRAIN FINISHED
This is another example of sneaky marketing. A good portion of grass-fed meat is actually not worth the extra price. When buying red meat that is grain finished you’re getting a run around for your money. Most of these cows end up heading to feed lots shortly before they are slaughtered and stuffed with grains to plump them up. This plump up not only drastically increases the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, but also destroys the previously high levels of omega-3, fat soluble vitamins, and conjugated linoleic acid.
Note – If cows are specifically fed grains to make them fat in a short amount of time, what do you think grains do to humans?
If are you unsure about whether meat is grain or grass finished, just ask the butcher behind the meat counter. Usually the staff at Whole Foods and other similar stores will know where they get their meat and how the cows ate during their last few weeks.
The extra cost for grass-fed meat is not justified if the beef is grain finished, as you’re likely getting close to what CAFO animals have in terms of reduced nutrition.
100% GRASS FED
To get this label, the cow must be fed a natural grass-fed diet up until the day they are slaughtered. When buying red meat that is 100% grass-fed, you will be getting the highest nutrient concentration possible and definitely healthy meats.
As discussed in the previous Source Matters post, stress on the animal plays a huge role in the formation of inflammatory fats. A stress hormone, cortisol, persists in cows just as it does in humans. This stress hormone leads to fat gain and chronic inflammation. In general, most grass-fed cows are on pastures grazing around until they are slaughtered, leading to a reduction in cortisol, thus a reduction in harmful fats.
The fat in grass-fed beef is also sometimes darker and more colorful (yellow to orange) than their CAFO counterparts. This is a result of increased colors in their diet and resultant increased levels of beta-carotene (you want this) in the animal’s fat.
There is a caveat with grass-fed however. Unlike with chickens, there is no regulation on whether grass-fed or pastured animals are injected with growth hormones, antibiotics or fed a bunch of GMO feed.
These things usually go hand in hand, but make sure your 100% grass-fed beef is also…
This is a strict term highly regulated by the USDA. Even though grass-fed is fantastic, the responsible thing would be to make sure they aren’t pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and given potentially dangerous GMO crops to graze on.
Is there organic, not grass-fed beef? Yes. More often than not, these two things are tied together however and you’re typically in the clear. When most farmers take the time and care to raise their animals on fully organic standards, they are not going to ruin their insides with grains, corn and soy-based products.
Some of the smaller family farms you may purchase from simply can’t afford the designation and overview from the USDA to certify their animals to be organic. In that case, visit the farm and talk to them about how they raise their cattle to find out if they pass the test.
Organic is worth purchasing to avoid any additives of any sort to the animals (think: your) diet. Luckily, grass-fed beef is usually organic as well.
As we discussed in Source Matters: A Guide to Buying Chicken and Eggs, most of the toxins and inflammation are inherently concentrated in the fat of the animals. This means if you can’t afford the healthy meats, the 100% grass-fed, organic beef, go for the leanest cuts possible and at least look for antibiotic and hormone free.
If you are able to purchase organic, grass-fed meats, spring for the fattier cuts. This saturated fat is NOT bad for you, and does NOT give you heart disease. This is where all of the good stuff we discussed previously is located.
GO GRASS FED, GRASS FINISHED IF AT ALL POSSIBLE
IF CAFO BEEF, BUY LEANEST CUTS POSSIBLE
IF GRASS FED, BUY FATTIER CUTS
VISIT THE FARMS AND BUY IN BULK FROM FARMER IF POSSIBLE
WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?
If you can’t afford the higher price at farmer’s markets, Whole Foods, or other specialty stores, there are plenty of other options for beef, lamb, bison, goat, etc.
Use Google to find cow-share programs in your area.
Find local sources through resources like Eat Wild, Local Harvest and Eat Well Guide that feature local farms in your area that are easily accessible.
Check craigslist. Seriously. There are plenty of very small scale farmers offering their cows on craigslist. These farmers often allow you to visit the farm and ask further questions about how the animals are raised.
Can’t fit a whole cow in your freezer? Find a few friends, co-workers, people at your gym, whatever, to split a whole, half or quarter of a cow.
Usually when purchased this way, all of the cuts average around or under $5-6/lb. This includes organ meats (you should be eating these), ground beef, NY strip, tenderloins, ribeyes, rib roasts – all of it! This quickly becomes exceedingly affordable, and usually much more so than even your general grocery store CAFO based animal products.
For those of you already thinking that healthy meats and pastured beef isn’t economical worldwide, that is a topic for a whole other installment of articles which will eventually be tackled. If you want to get started I recommend a fantastic book by Polyface Farms owner, Joel Salatin, called Folks, This Ain’t Normal. Turns out this form of raising cattle is not only feasible, but much more sustainable if done correctly.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, comments, or favorite sources of red meat, join in on the discussion below.
Also, stay tuned for the related upcoming article Red Meat Won’t Kill You.