Our own health doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is connected to the health of the land, animals, oceans, plants, etc. In the case of eating meat, we need to make sure that the animals we are eating are healthy. How was the animal raised? What did it eat? Was it killed humanely?
It’s hard to keep in mind a cow’s whole life when we are gazing at a bright display of meat cuts wrapped in branded plastic. There is so much marketing going on that it can be hard to know what any of it means. Luckily, there are some short-cuts to look out for on the label: Grass-fed and grass-finished. These aren’t perfect, but they are better. At the end of the article, I mention some other ways you can source grass-fed meat.
*Grass-fed means that the animal had at least partial exposure to its natural food (grass) during its life. Most of the time grass-fed animals are finished off with other feed (soy, corn, and grains).
*Grass-finished means the animal had its natural food for its whole life.
Additional food and substances such as hormones and antibiotics that animals are finished on speed up growth and fatten the animal. This is great for meat producers’ bottom line but terrible for OUR (and animal) health and wellbeing. This is the reason that most conventional meat products are cheaper than grass-fed and grass-finished meat products. But you pay the full cost (and more) in the long run through your health and the impact on the environment.
Here are five things you should know about grass-fed and grass-finished meats and products.
1. Conventional meat is not a SuperHero food.
We aren’t trying to be “uppity” or overly picky about this distinction. Grass-fed and grass-finished make an enormous difference. It is good to be aware and responsible with our food choices because what we eat matters to our health and the health of the planet we live on. Just as we build our bodies from the food we eat, animals build their bodies from what they eat. So, it is key to consider an animal’s diet (as well as how it was raised) before you eat it.
We teach and discuss with our kids how a conventional cow lives out their life. Sadly, once the baby calf is weaned from their mother, they are imprisoned and forced to enter a feedlot. There is little to no room for them to roam. They are fed high energy grains like wheat, corn, oats and barley to fatten them up quickly. In addition, they are also fed grain byproducts like soybean meal (cheap calories). This is NOT their natural food source and thus causes inflammation and other serious health problems in the cow. Due to these conditions, there is no wonder why they often become ill and thus need additional antibiotics and hormones that we ultimately consume.
When we eat the meat from this cow, we in turn also ingest the cow’s inflamed body parts and the additional antibiotics and other hormones. A study by the NRDC, published in 2020, showed that US cattle producers use more than 40% of medically important antibiotics–those that are used in human medicine–for their cattle. This is a practice that the World Health Organization discourages and that the EU will ban starting in 2022. While antibiotics are very important tools when applied correctly, they can have harmful side effects as well (for the cattle and us). Check out our article on antibiotics for more information.
The addition of meat in our book was made with careful deliberation. The nutrients we get from a grass-fed animal is far superior than a conventionally raised animal. Eating meat in a responsible way is considerably better for the environment than eating meat that is conventionally raised.
2. Meat doesn’t need to be the central element of the meal.
I challenge myself and my family to rethink meat often. We understand it is a precious and limited resource to be respected. To buy higher quality sometimes means trading off for a smaller quantity. We teach our kids to think about the conditions that animals were raised in and what type of food the animals eat. Has the animal been given antibiotics, steroids, other substances? If they were given these things, they would ultimately enter our bodies.
The same goes not only for the meat of the cow but also their dairy products, including milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese. It is critical to buy animal products that are grass-fed. We are responsible for finding out how the animal was raised and what the animal ate.
3. Labels are tough to decipher, and no one is perfect.
Often, cows will be allowed to eat grass initially (so that they can be advertised as grass-fed) but then the cow is finished with grain and/or soy to beef it up before slaughter. This practice is tricky and deceiving and unfortunately happens a lot. Cows that eat grass in the summer months but grains during the winter months can also be labeled as grass-fed.
As a note, cows that are grass-fed and grass-finished eat alfalfa during the winter months when they cannot graze on grass. When you see grass-fed and grass-finished, this means that the cow ate their natural food of grass throughout their life. Cows that are allowed to graze on their natural diet (grass) have many more nutrients in their meat and their dairy than conventionally raised cows. The same also goes for chicken eggs and meat, as well as other animals.
4. Ruminant animals (like cows) actually help sequester carbon in the soil when they are allowed to pasture properly.
Cows that are allowed to graze on grass support regenerative farming. Regenerative farming is a major way to potentially reverse climate change. Regenerative farming generates healthy thick soils which hold onto greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide instead of releasing them into the atmosphere. Also, healthy soils require much less irrigation because the soil holds more water.
5. Looking outside of the supermarket may give you better options.
While most of us are most comfortable buying all our food at the grocery store, quality meat can be a difficult one depending on where you live. Depending on your resources and location, you can explore other ways of buying meat.
If you have a local butchery, see where they are sourcing their meat and ask if it is grass-fed. Butcheries tend to have higher quality meat from local (or regional) farmers.
Check out the farmers market for local farmers. There, you can ask them directly about their practices. You can also feel good about supporting a small, local business.
Find another family (or a few other families) to go in on a whole animal with you. When farmers know they have a buyer set up ahead of time, it is much easier for them to raise and feed an animal that they might otherwise be taking a risk on (grass-fed and organic are much more expensive to raise than conventional). It may be cheaper to purchase in bulk and direct from the farmer, but this method is more expensive up front and requires some freezer space.
Grass-fed meat is worth it. Not only is pasturing animals better for the environment than feeding them grains, it is also better for our own bodies. As for the cost, it is no brainer. Investing in high quality meat now means spending less on health complications later on.