Some labels on animal-based foods have been created to help identify the quality of the products and the manner in which the animals were raised. There are other labels however, that are created to add confusion, and market lower quality foods as healthy ethical options.
Many of these labels are unregulated, meaning there is no oversight or certification process. It is therefore not only important to understand what the labels mean, but also to choose products from trustworthy sources.
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Choosing the Highest Quality Meats, Eggs, & Dairy
You are what you eat, and you are what your food ate. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but it is true nonetheless. Meat, eggs, and/or dairy from animals that have been fed their natural diet have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, congregated linoleic acid (CLA), minerals, and vitamins.
A major reason that meat gets a bad rap from some nutritionists is because commercial meats from animals fed genetically modified corn, soy, and/or grains is unhealthy. As a result of what these animals consume, these meats are higher in Omega-6 fatty acids, and lacking in vitamins and minerals.
These animals are also often treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, and stress hormones like cortisol remain elevated due to the manner in which these animals are raised. These elements can change the molecular structure of the meat, eggs or dairy and alter its nutritional value considerably.
An additional caveat that contributes to food label confusion is the fact that these labels are not universal for all types of animal-based products. Before we delve into what each label means, lets first look at what labels you should be searching for when choosing specific products.
Beef & Lamb
Both cattle (beef) and lamb (less than one-year old sheep) are grazers that consume grass almost exclusively. Because this is their natural diet, grass-fed beef or lamb is considered top quality. In some instances, cattle or lambs may be transferred off of the pasture and confined in a feedlot to be fattened up just prior to processing. During this period, these animals may be fed grass, in the form of hay, but more often they are fed grains.
The best quality beef and lamb is therefore 100% grass-fed and grass finished, pasture-raised, and local. This means that the animals remained on the pasture, consuming grass or hay, until processing, and buying local ensures that animals did not endure the stress of traveling long distances prior to processing.
Beef & Lamb
Best: 100% grass-fed and finished, pasture-raised, local
Better: Grass-fed, pasture-raised
Baseline: Commercial, hormone & antibiotic-free
Because pigs have a more varied diet and don’t consume grass exclusively, there is not a grass-fed label option for pork. Pasture-raised and local are therefore your best options.
Best: Pasture-raised, local
Better: Free-range, organic
Eggs & Poultry (Chicken, Turkey, Goose & Duck)
The natural diet of poultry is a mix of grasses, insects, seeds and grubs, and therefore, grass-fed is not an option you should be looking for. Similar to pork, the best option for poultry and eggs, is pasture-raised and local.
Eggs & Poultry
Best: Pasture-raised, local
Better: Free-range, organic
Good: Cage-free, organic
When it comes to dairy, grass-fed, raw/unpasteurized is the best way to go, and although this website is primarily dedicated to those navigating keto without dairy, we support all forms of keto and anyone trying to make better food choices.
Dairy (always buy full-fat)
Best: Grass-fed, raw/unpasteurized
Baseline: Commercial or organic – not recommended
What Do These Labels Actually Mean?
Grass-Fed (beef or lamb)
Grass-fed and pasture raised are not synonymous terms. One refers to what the animal eats (grass), and the other refers to where the animal eats (in a pasture). There can however, be overlap. For instance, grass-fed cattle may have access to a pasture, but may also remain confined indoors or within a corral system and simply be fed grass in the form of hay or baleage (green cut and vacuum sealed pasture grass). Alternatively, cattle raised on the pasture can still be fed grains.
Unfortunately, a beef or lamb product can still receive a grass-fed label even though the animals received supplemental grain feed or were finished on a grain-based diet. Feeding cattle or lambs a grain-based diet for a few months is a common strategy used to fatten up the animals just prior to processing. That is why it is important to look for the either 100% grass-fed (only fed grass for their entire life) or the additional label of grass-fed & grass-finished.
Grass-finished is an additional label that often accompanies grass-fed, and is there to specify that the animal ate grass throughout its life and also in the final months prior to processing. A label that only reads grass-finished (not common) could indicate that the animals had been fed grains previously, but were finished on grass.
That is why the best option as noted above, is 100% grass-fed, grass-finished, pasture-raised and local.
There is no specific pasture-raised certification, however certified organic meat must come from animals that have continuous access to pasture regardless of whether they use it or not. The benefit of pasture-raised is that animals are able to roam free and consume elements of their natural diets, including grasses, forbs, and bugs/grubs.
As mentioned earlier however, as a stand-alone label, pasture-raised does not necessary mean that the animals consumed their natural diet exclusively. Pasture-raise animals can receive supplemental grain feed or be finished on a grain-based diet.
Cage-Free (eggs & poultry)
Again, there is no third-party review associated with labeling products as cage-free. “Cage-free” means that the animals remain uncaged but still contained within warehouses or barns. They don’t necessarily have access to the outdoors, and certain procedures such as beak cutting is still permitted.
Free-Range or Roaming
With regard to ruminants such as cattle, sheep or bison, free-range simply means that the animals cannot be held in feedlots. With respect to poultry, it means that the birds must have access to the outdoors, regardless of use, at least 51% of the time.
There is no third-party review associated with this label, and there are no restrictions to what the animals can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.
A certified organic label does require third party auditing, through which certain parameters must be met. Animals may not receive hormones or antibiotics unless in the case of illness, they must consume organic feed, and they must have outdoor access, but may not necessarily use it.
As a stand-alone label, organic does not mean grass-fed, or naturally fed. Corn, soy, and grains can be used as feed, as long as they are organic. The certification process is extensive and costly, and therefore, some very reputable smaller farms have difficulty affording it.
This label is a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) verified term that simply means that the animals were raised without growth promoters or unnecessary antibiotics. There are no specifications regarding welfare or diet associated with this label.
No Added Hormones
This is another unregulated and, in some cases, purposely misleading term. With respect to cattle and sheep (lamb), “added hormones” is referring specifically to growth-promoters. Antibiotics and other medications that may promote increases in the production of certain hormones may still be permitted.
It is already illegal to use hormones in pork or poultry production, therefore, the use of this label on products from these sources is simply a marketing ploy.
There is no federal inspection or oversight associated with this label either. It is intended to suggest that the animal feed is free of any animal by-products. Corn, soy, and grains would obviously qualify, as would some other even lower quality feed. Chickens are not vegetarians, so this label on chicken or eggs is a good indicator that the chickens were not eating their natural diet.
The terms “natural” or “minimally processed” have the same meaning, and are, in essence, simply marketing labels. Eggs, and all cuts of meats are, by definition, minimally processed, and free of flavorings or chemicals.
Animal Welfare Labels
For the most part, the healthiest products come from the most humane and ethical sources, but there can be exceptions. In addition to food labels that highlight what the animals ate, and to some degree how much space they had access to, there is an entirely separate set of labels that outline the manner in which the animals were raised.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has outlined the differences associated with each of these labels on their website, and recommends only the three certifications listed below. The ASPCA also offers a ShopKind helpline for those wanting more information, and help finding welfare certified products.
Again, the certification process can be extensive and costly. The presence of these labels on products is a fantastic way to confirm that the animals were treated ethically, however there are some very reputable small farms that simply can’t afford the certification process. With a little due diligence, you can find local farms, or online meat suppliers, dedicated to ethical practices.
Animal Welfare Labels Recommended By the ASPCA
Buying Meat Online
I recently moved to a city of approximately forty thousand people, with an abundance of local agriculture. I have been able to find 100% grass-fed, grass-finished ground beef in my local supermarkets, but I haven’t had as much luck in locating other cuts of beef of this same quality, or pasture-raised pork, poultry or eggs.
Through my wife’s work I have been able to connect with a local beef rancher and have gotten some additional cuts through him, but I have had to expand my search for quality pork, bison, poultry, eggs, and game meats.
I have reviewed several online meat suppliers including Butcher Box, Crowd Cow, Moink, Omaha Steaks, Porter Road, and the Mountain Primal Meat Company.
Based on all of the information above, I believe US Wellness Meats, the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, Farm Foods Market, and Force of Nature offer the highest quality and best selection. Check out our complete review here.
Choosing the animal-based foods we consume from high quality humane sources is extremely important, not just for our personal health but also for the sake of the animals and the environment. By supporting ethically responsible sources, we have the power to raise the standards in which our food is produced.
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