Local, organic, grass-fed, wild, and “natural” are all buzzwords these days. Is it just a label thrown on food?
Is the local, farmer’s market broccoli really that much different than the other non-organic broccoli shipped in from California?
Is it worth it to pay a few extra dollars for wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, or pasture-raised eggs?
Yes! Whenever it is possible, buying the best quality food is the way to go. They will be more expensive, but when you choose these foods and ditch the processed foods, it may even out.
Just a little craziness. When I typed ‘food quality’ into google, the second result was a link to a McDonald’s and a page with the quote, “Our goal is quality food above all else.” Really, Mickey Ds?
Why does food quality matter?
Above all else, I prefer high-quality animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, etc.) because there’s a huge potential for toxic byproducts to accumulate. Toxins accumulate in fat, and unfortunately, the large factory farms these days pump their animals full of antibiotics, hormones, and corn, soy, and other grains. 70% of the country’s antibiotics go to animals, and if you know anything about the overuse of antibiotics, even in humans, this is a huge amount! It can lead to disasters like antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
First off, grass-fed and organic are not interchangeable. The meat could be organic AND grass-fed, or it could be one or the other.
The grain-fed animals get fat quickly, bringing them to your supermarket, fridge, and plate much faster than grass-fed cows. It makes sense; just like humans, corn breaks down to sugar in the blood, and overeating sugar makes your fat cells explode with growth. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) can mass produce cheap beef quickly by using hormones for growth, limited space for no movement to use energy, and using low quality, cheap food.
The nutritional value between the two are pretty significant. When animals are allowed to graze on their food of choice, they are actually pretty healthy (imagine that!). The ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3 fatty acids improves tremendously in grass-fed animals. I’m sure you’ve heard all about the heart-healthy, brain boosting omega 3 fats found in fish, but they’re actually in grass-fed animals too. The omega 6 to omega 3 ratio in the diet should be as close to 1:1 as possible, with a maximum of 4:1. The typical American diet contains a ratio of 14:1 to 25:1 or higher, which is very pro-inflammatory. In grain-fed beef, the ratio is ~6.3 compared to grass-fed with a ratio of 2.1, and some studies show a ratio of up to 21:1 with the grain-fed animals!
While grain-fed animals are merely protein, low quality fat, and a few vitamins and minerals, grass-fed animals are stocked with many more vitamins and minerals. One study showed these differences between grain-fed and grass-fed cattle:
- 288% more vitamin E content
- 54% more beta-carotene content
- 200% more riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- 300% more thiamin (vitamin B1)
- 30% more calcium
- 5% more magnesium
You may not need that multivitamin if you choose healthy animals.
Healthy animals are probably also much happier animals. The cows in CAFOs are not out grazing with its herd like the picture-perfect scene we think of. They’re confined side by side thousands of other animals with little room to move. Grass-fed tends to be more humane because the cows are not confined and are allowed to roam around on natural forage. If you want to ensure your steak lived a happy life, you could also look for the “certified humane” label.
Which cows look happier and healthier?
Where to buy it?
The good news is grass-fed animals are becoming more readily available nowadays. You can find it at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, co-ops, but the best places to look are your local farmer’s markets or local farmers. You will be able to talk directly to the farmers to ask about their practices, which you cannot do at a grocery store. You may also be able to bargain with prices at farmer’s markets if you commit to buying a large amount.
Grass-fed meat is also showing up more and more on restaurant menus, especially those that aim to use sustainable and/or local food.
To buy or not to buy?
The point is the burger from McDonald’s is absolutely not the same as a grass-fed burger. The fatty acid profile is much healthier, you’ll be filling up on higher amounts of vitamins and minerals, and you can feel good that the cow lived a good life. The same benefits also apply to other grass-fed products, such as butter and dairy products.
Ultimately, it’s your decision. Many people cannot afford to buy all grass-fed, organic, or whatever labels all the time. Prioritize what is most important for you and your health, and whenever possible, choose high-quality food such as grass-fed animals. Don’t stress if you cannot find or purchase grass-fed all the time. You can also save money by eating appropriate portion sizes of the meat (~2-4 oz per meal); restaurant-size portions of 6-12+ oz of steak are not necessary. Finish it off by balancing your plate with lots of veggies and a small amount of carbohydrates if you desire.