Buying Meat and Poultry: How to Make the Healthiest Choice

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I have a question about meat. What should I be looking for when buying organic (or grain-fed, or corn-fed, or hormone-free, or whatever else) meat and poultry? I buy organic chicken from a healthy butcher for my kids and it’s exclusively the chicken they eat (except for the odd trip to a restaurant). But is this really necessary or am I paying a whole lot more for little benefit? And in terms of beef, what should I be looking for?

Dr. Doug’s Answer

As with most things in life, you really do get what you pay for. But I understand that some of the terms are confusing and it’s difficult to know exactly what you should be eating.

The top of the list, as far as certification goes, is organic. Organic regulations prevent the animals from being given antibiotics, hormones or other medications through their feed. In fact, in order to be certified organic, the animals have to be fed organic feed. This means that no pesticide residues from plant crops are bio-accumulating in the tissues of the animals and you can feel fairly safe about your meat being untainted (obviously the animals are still exposed to what’s in the environment, like air pollution, but the farmers can only do so much).

There used to be a term called “Naturally Raised” which designated animals which were not given hormones or antibiotics but were not organic. They may or may not have been fed organic feed. The reasoning behind this label was that farmers who couldn’t afford the organic certification but were still adhering to clean practices could let customers know that there was a difference between their meat and that coming from factory farms. The term was yanked by the government, however, due to the fact that it was too vague and could be exploited. Now these meats will usually simply be labeled something along the lines of “raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics”. These are usually cheaper than organic meats.

As for listing what the animals were fed, this is helpful. Ideally, from a health perspective, animals that have been fed their natural diet are going to be healthiest and therefore provide the healthiest food. This goes for eggs and dairy products also. Cows allowed to pasture, eating grass, as they were born to eat, provide the healthiest meat. These cows will actually provide omega-3 fats usually only found in fish. Cows are often fed grains, however, because it fattens them up and makes for a tastier meat (subjectively speaking, of course).

Non-organic animals that don’t have their feed stated could have been given anything, to an extent (there are regulations on what can be fed to cattle). It is not uncommon to feed cattle soy, grain and corn on conventional farms. This is not the natural diet of a cow and so it increases the need for veterinary drugs, feed additives or nutraceuticals to keep them from getting sick as well as making them grow bigger and quicker. (Note: Canadian meat is hormone-free; hormones were banned in farmed animals back in the 1960s).

Similarly, chickens fed grain byproducts like canola and soybean meal, meat and bone meal, are not being fed their natural diet and would end up sick if not given medication in the feed. Chickens allowed to scratch and forage, to eat insects, seeds, grains, wild plants and grass (yes, chickens eat grass), yield a healthy bird. Despite the new “Omega-3” eggs you may have seen in the grocery store, which comes from chickens fed flax seeds, eggs from chickens allowed to eat their natural diet automatically have omega-3 fats. This is kind of like fortifying milk with vitamin D — before all the processing the milk went through, it already contained vitamin D.

So to answer your original question — yes, the organic meat you are buying is worth the extra cost. Factory farmed meat, as well as coming with a greater karmic load, is contaminated with all kinds of stuff you don’t want entering your body. Healthy animals lead to healthy meat.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto. You can email him with questions at dougthehealthyfoodie alt gmail dot com.

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