By Heather Pratt, CNT
Since the beginning of human existence, man has relied on animals as a source of food. Our Paleolithic ancestors sometimes acquired up to 50 percent of the calories in their diet from hunting, and even as early humans began to settle down and farm, animals still played an important role in their diets, supplying sources of both meat and dairy. In fact, there has never been a traditional society that did not rely on animals in some form or another for sustenance. With this long history of hunting, and then eventually domesticating animals, one would think that raising animals for food would come naturally to humans. But this is only partly true. Modern man, along with modern technology, has taken the relatively simple act of raising animals and turned it into an industrial process that ignores both the health of the animal and the health of those that consume the animal. Meat can be an incredibly healthy and nourishing food, IF it is raised in a natural way.
Cows are ruminant animals. This means their digestive systems are designed to digest cellulose from plants such as grass. A cow’s digestive system can only handle very small amounts of grain—the occasional amount they may get from eating the seed heads of grasses, for instance—they are simply not biologically designed to eat a strictly grain-based diet. In spite of that, most cows raised in the United States are fed a diet of corn, and some soy, because it’s cheap and fattens them more quickly. But a diet that primarily consists of grain lowers the pH of a cow’s stomach, which ultimately leads to acidosis. Acidosis causes diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease, and a weakened immune system. This leaves the animal more susceptible to disease, and when coupled with crammed living quarters and general poor living conditions, it requires the use of large amounts of antibiotics to keep them from becoming sick. In fact, most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a practice that is leading directly to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. In addition to antibiotics, factory-farmed animals are fed large amounts of artificial growth hormones to promote fast growth.
Factory farming is common practice for raising most of the animal products consumed in the United States today, and while the focus so far has been on beef, it does not mean that poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy are free of these same problems. Conventional dairy cows are often given Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), a genetically-engineered hormone that increases milk production. That same artificial hormone has recently been tested on farm-raised tilapia and catfish to increase growth. Conventionally-raised chickens are up to 460 times more likely to carry antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria than chickens raised without the use of antibiotics. Eggs from these chickens are often irradiated, or exposed to radiation, to kill bacteria, which significantly lowers the nutritional content of the egg. Even the fish we prize as health food only have a healthy profile when fed a natural diet and are allowed to swim—not when raised on farms and fed a diet based on corn, which is becoming common practice in the United States. Animals, and the food we get from those animals, are simply healthier when given access to fresh air and sunshine, exercise, and a diet that closely matches the diet they were meant to eat.
An animal’s diet has a profound impact on the nutrient content of its products. Cows allowed to graze and forage, often termed grass-fed, have a much healthier fatty acid profile compared to conventionally-raised beef. Grass-fed beef has a fatty acid profile closer to what is estimated to be the ideal intake of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, about 2:1. Whereas conventionally-raised meat, fed a diet high in omega-6 rich grain, has a ratio somewhere around 23:1. All of this excess omega-6 in our diets leads directly to inflammation and is associated with a host of modern diseases, including heart disease and weight gain. In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, grass-fed beef is higher in other nutrients including zinc, CoQ10, L-carnitine, and vitamins A and E. Grass-fed beef contains much higher levels of CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass, as well as enhance the immune system. Eggs from naturally-raised chickens are more resistant to bacteria and contain up to 20 times more healthy omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to 10 percent less fat, 40 percent more vitamin A, and 34 percent less cholesterol than eggs from factory-farmed chickens. Being raised in a more natural environment means the animals are less susceptible to disease and therefore don’t require the constant stream of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. All of this leads to a healthier meal for us and is much more humane for the animal.
Having become aware of the problems associated with conventionally-raised meat, many have begun to search out natural alternatives, but what are consumers really getting when they purchase “natural” meat? Most of us assume that a natural label implies that the animal had some access to pasture, or at the very least wasn’t pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. The unfortunate truth is that the term “natural,” as it applies to meat, doesn’t include these things. According to the USDA, natural refers to “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product)”—in other words, “natural” is a processing definition. Based on this definition almost all meat sold in the United States is “natural.” Many stores, including some claiming to be health food stores, are selling this “natural” meat, leading consumers to believe they are buying naturally-raised meat. There is a difference. So how do you find naturally-raised meat? You scrutinize labels, call manufacturers, and question the standards used by the stores you buy from. Look for labels that specifically say “hormone free” and “antibiotic free.” If a product is labeled organic you can be sure that no hormones or antibiotics were administered to the animal, that the animal was allowed at least some access to the outdoors, and that their diet consisted of organic feed. Organic does not necessarily ensure that the animal was grass-fed, however. For that distinction look for products that are labeled as “grass-fed” or “grain-finished.” This means the animal spent most of its time at pasture, grazing on grass, and was supplemented with grains near the end of the growing period to produce a meat that is more tender and marbled. This does alter the fatty-acid profile a bit, but it is still superior to conventionally-raised meat. You can also try buffalo, elk, quail, or ostrich for a healthy alternative to conventionally-raised meats. Use the same set of standards when purchasing any animal products, including eggs and dairy products, to ensure you are getting the highest quality available and the best foods for your health.
At Natural Grocers we have our own set of standards for the quality of meat we sell, going beyond the USDA’s natural standard. All of the meat we sell is natural by the USDA’s definition, in addition to being naturally raised. You can be assured that the meats sold in our stores are from animals raised without the use of hormones, hormone implants, and antibiotics, and have never been fed animal by-products, such as waste or blood, a practice common in conventional factory farms. We also emphasize 100% grass-fed beef, ensuring cattle spend their entire lives on pasture. Additionally, we only buy from companies who employ humane practices raising their animals. Our standards are higher because we realize the importance of eating not just natural, but naturally-raised meat, not only for your health, but for the health of the environment, and the wellbeing of the animals.
When choosing grass-fed beef, or using leaner varieties of red meat such as ostrich, buffalo, and wild game, keep in mind these few simple tips to ensure the best taste.