I have found that the food choices I make for myself and my family have a large impact on my health and our environment. One important consideration in a person's diet is whether to eat meat and dairy products and, if so, what kind. I have chosen to eat meat since I believe that humans are omnivores and eating meat plays an integral role in maintaining health. Meat contains high-quality proteins and amino acids, as well as B and C vitamins. My choices have changed over the years as I have learned more about how animals are raised and what they are fed. In my experience, meat and dairy products from grass-fed animals are the healthiest choice.
Preference for Pastures
There is no comparison between the quality of conventionally raised animals and those that are raised organically and pasture-fed. One might think the nutritional value of the meat is similar in both processes, but meat from pasture-fed animals is much more healthful for our bodies. In addition, the care of the animals is more humane and the impact on the environment is less.
The term "pasture-fed" means that animals have been raised in a pasture and have consumed grass almost exclusively. For poultry, that may include bugs, insects and anything else they find in the grass. Many of the farmers and ranchers who raise their animals this way refer to themselves as grass farmers rather than ranchers. Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is the conventional process in which the animals are fed mostly corn and soy. As the name implies, this process uses a feedlot where animals are not allowed to Choosing Pasture-Fed Meat — more a factory than a ranch. Since this environment and diet are so harmful, the animals are generally fed antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals to keep them alive and rapidly increase their body weight and fat content.
The nutritional value of meat and dairy produced from CAFO ranches and pasture-feeding farms is very different. For example, pasture-fed chickens' eggs have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fats, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene than eggs from CAFO ranches. Pasture-fed beef has 2 - 4 times more omega-3 fat. The medical journal Archives of Internal Medicine reported in 1999 that consuming pasture-fed beef can actually lower LDL cholesterol.
In addition, pasture-fed beef can contain as much as 3 - 6 times more vitamin E than CAFO meat. According to a 2003 article in the Journal of Animal Science, pasture-fed beef contains hundreds of times more lutein, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin than grain-fed beef. These are potent anti-oxidants that protect our bodies. Pasture-fed beef also contains 3 - 5 times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that has been shown to prevent cancer and help reduce body-fat and blood-sugar imbalances. Dairy products from pasture-fed animals have the same nutritional qualities listed above.
Not only are products from pasture-fed animals more nutritious, but raising animals this way is much easier on the environment. In conventional feed lots, an inordinate amount of fossil fuel is used to produce and apply fertilizers for the grain feed, to grow the corn and soy for their diets and to ship the grain, the cattle and then the meat. There are also the problems of heavy antibiotic use and excessive manure that pollutes the environment due to the higher concentration of animals on CAFO lots. Pasture-fed cattle are rarely given antibiotics, and their manure is left in the grass. Most farmers will then let their chickens graze on the manure and pick out the larvae that produce flies. This enables manure to decompose more quickly.
While we think of trees as great carbon dioxide consumers, grass is actually more efficient since it stores much of the carbon in the soil and in its roots. Several studies have demonstrated that even though cattle produce methane, which contributes to global warming, cattle that are pasture-raised have an overall effect of lowering CO2 output. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, if we were to convert the 16 million acres used to grow corn for CAFOs to pasture for raising cattle, the net effect would be a reduction in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere of 14 billion pounds in one year. This would be the equivalent of removing 4 million cars from the roads.
The Humane Factor
Animals that are pasture-fed are also treated more humanely. They have access to fresh air and are allowed to socialize. They are restricted by an electrical fence that is constantly relocated, allowing the animals to consume fresh grass. As a result of this system, they are also able to eat when they want and can move to new areas. Grass is clearly the preferred food for ruminants, animals that digest in two steps with multiple stomachs that can break down fibrous foods. Ruminants have difficulty digesting grains such as soy and corn. The grains cause inflammation in the stomachs that often leads to ulcers. Bacteria pass through the stomachs into the bloodstream and can end up in the liver. It is estimated that 15 - 30 percent of feedlot cattle have liver abscesses. The only treatment for this is antibiotics. Grains also cause a large amount of belching and gas, which is painful for the animals.
Know your Source
Though I recommend that you eat mostly pasture-fed meat and dairy products if possible, following through on this suggestion can be confusing. Some stores sell meat that is labeled "Pasture-Fed," but the animals are fed grains the last several months of their lives to fatten them up, thereby negating the nutritional value that would have been gained if the animals had been exclusively pasture-fed. Ask for a "pasture-fed and finished" product. There are many places to buy pasture-fed meats, but my personal favorite is a local farmer's market. I make a point of talking to the grass farmers who sell their meat and dairy products. I also enjoy visiting their farms. I have found that they welcome visitors and their questions. The cost is a little higher than what you may find at a grocery store, but the benefits to your health and to the environment greatly outweigh the extra expense. Bon Appetit!