Grass fed vs. corn fed, organic vs. natural, and wild vs. farmed. What should you be eating? Get the facts.
What's the only thing no-neck meatheads and patchouli-scented hippies have in common? We're both interested in organic food and the effects on our health and performance. (Well, maybe the hippies don't care about performance....)
People buy organic food for many reasons: to reduce the toxic load on their body, to eat more nutritious foods, to be environmentally friendly, and to support local and/or sustainable farms. In this article we're gonna save the moral dilemma of organic vs. conventional food for your ethics class or Greenpeace rally and instead ask the question: Is organic meat better for us?
Meat: A Definition
I've seen people who "don't eat meat," chow down on fish. So, from a simplicity standpoint, I consider all animal-based contractile proteins meat. Therefore, chicken is meat, turkey is meat, and yes, fish is meat. Sure there's lean meats and not-so-lean meats, white meats, dark meats, and pink meats, too. The bottom line: if it facilitates physical movement in an animal, then it's meat!
The Difference Between "Natural" and "Organic"
Organic meats are harder to find than organic produce in most supermarkets because most meat producers would rather not deal with the thick government bureaucracy surrounding the USDA Certified Organic seal. Also, most consumers would not be able to tell the difference between Certified Organic meat and the various forms of cheaper "natural" meats. As I discussed in the organic produce article Certified Organic producers must submit to regular inspections. Producers of the various "natural" meats do not. So buying "natural" meat in any variety is an act of faith by the consumer.
Producers can label their meat as "natural" as long as they explain exactly what they mean somewhere on the label. Often they simply choose one or more of the criteria on the Certified Organic meat list ("no growth hormones"). In this manner, you as a consumer can pick and choose which of the Certified Organic issues appeal to you the most and single them out. This will save you a considerable amount of cash at checkout.
Here's the USDA Certified Organic list for meats. If you pay the premium price for the seal, this is what you get:
- No antibiotics
- No growth hormones
- No animal byproducts in feed (no animal cannibalism)
- Fed 100% organic feed for life (typically soybeans and corn, not grass)
- Free range (animal has access to sunlight, outdoors, pasture, and exercise areas)
Breaking It Down
As unnatural as it may be, conventional animals are oftentimes fed what's leftover from the slaughterhouse floor. This can wreak havoc on the digestive and immune systems of herbivores and is one of the numerous reasons why conventional farm animals are administered large amounts of antibiotics on a routine basis.
The two areas where the Certified Organic standards really shine are "no artificial growth hormones" and "no antibiotics." In the US, growth hormones are widely used with beef and other animals, (never with chickens, however). The UN has outlawed this practice and has thus disallowed US beef to be sold in its member nations. (Which means our beef isn't even good enough for Albania.)
Antibiotics are widely used in any form of conventionally farmed animal that you'd want to eat (beef, chicken, pigs, turkey, lamb, and fish). Much like the artificial pesticides in produce, growth hormones and antibiotics do show up in the tissues of humans who eat conventional meat on a regular basis. I must also point out that the antibiotics contained in meat has been linked to antibacterial resistance in humans.
Is this a threat to your health and performance? Sadly, you must decide for yourself, as the studies are still inconclusive. Once again, this falls upon personal belief: do you believe that having artificial growth hormones and antibiotics accumulate in your body will negatively affect your long-term health and performance?
"Free range" basically means supplying the animal with a little patch of dirt to stand on, which, theoretically, means they're probably a bit healthier since they're not confined to a over-crowded space. Still, most animals don't take advantage of going outside since they were typically born and raised inside.
If you don't want to purchase Certified Organic meat yet still want the benefits of free range animals (healthier, more natural life for animal, and possibly better fat composition of meat), look for a "natural" variety that states "pastured" instead. This is a better assurance that the animal actually spent significant time outdoors. In my opinion, this issue is less in the realm of optimal health and performance, and more so in the touchy-feely area of animal politics.
What's Up With Grass Fed?
TC did a good job covering this in his article, Corn-Fed Blubber, but I want to quickly address it here, too.
Cows were originally designed to eat grass. However, the vast majority of commercially raised cows are fed soybeans and corn (even Certified Organic cows). The benefits of grass fed beef include less pro-inflammatory saturated and omega-6 fats, more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and CLA, and a higher vitamin content. So you could say it's a good thing.
However, "grass fed" doesn't mean the animal was fed grass for its whole life. Most cattle (even conventional) are somewhat grass fed until they reach the feedlot before slaughtering, where they're fattened up with corn and soybeans.
If the benefits of grass fed beef appeal to you, look for "100% grass fed" or "grass finished" (fed only grass during the last few weeks before slaughter) instead. However, you're probably already in the habit of draining or cutting off the excess fat from your already lean cuts of beef. Therefore, in my opinion, the small amounts of extra omega-3's and CLA are not worth the extra cost in and of themselves.
Cheap Milk, Cheese, and Eggs
The same standards that apply to Certified Organic meat apply to Certified Organic dairy products as well. Proponents of organic milk claim that it leads to less bloating than conventional milk. Organic yogurt has been shown to contain higher amounts of beneficial bacteria than conventional yogurt, which is important since one of the main reasons why health and performance-minded people eat yogurt in the first place is to reap the benefits of those beneficial bacteria.
I've experienced both of these first-hand: when I was going through Fire Academy I consumed a 1,200 calorie concoction I dubbed the "Super Shake" every single day to keep my weight up. Among other things, this bad boy contained two cups of conventional milk and one cup of conventional yogurt.
As time went on, the bloating and gas became too much for even me to handle, let alone my girlfriend or fellow cadets. I then decided to buck-up and give the Certified Organic varieties a run for their money. The rest of the ingredients stayed the same. Lo and behold, the bloating and gas were significantly reduced. I'm now a firm believer in organic dairy products. (And no, I'm not lactose intolerant.)
I understand that a lot of young guys use milk as a cheap and convenient source of protein and that organic milk is significantly more expensive. Tough shit! If you want the benefits, you've gotta pay the piper.
Certified Organic eggs come from (duh!) organically raised chickens. This means that all the benefits of organically raised chickens are passed down to their eggs. One interesting development in the egg industry is omega-3 enriched eggs, which come from chickens that were fed flax seed meal. Their eggs consequently contain a decent amount of omega-3 fatty acids (the "good" fats), and a bit less saturated fat. It's my personal experience that these eggs just plain taste better than regular eggs and are an idiot-proof way of boosting your daily omega-3 count.
Protein that Swims
Last but not least, we have fish. Fish have yet to have a USDA Certified Organic standard set. There are some "organic" varieties on the market, but they're not regulated by anyone but themselves. Thus, it's the equivalent of "natural" meat. I suspect the main hurdle to establishing Certified Organic fish standards is where to set the acceptable level of mercury.
Mercury contamination is a fact of life for essentially any fish from any location. The higher the fish is on the food chain, the more contaminated with mercury it will be (sharks are among the highest). Sticking to this theme, albacore tuna is more contaminated than regular "chunk-light" tuna.
Wild vs. Farmed
"Wild" fish are—wait for it, wait for it —caught from our oceans and waterways, which just so happen to be the dumping grounds of industry. Therefore, wild fish have higher levels of mercury contamination than "farmed" fish. Still, farmed fish are pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from dying in confinement, and growth hormones to speed growth.
As you can see, picking what kind of fish to eat can be a bit tricky. (As a side note, shrimp are never administered antibiotics or growth hormones, and usually have very low levels of mercury. Pass the cocktail sauce!)
My advice is to buy wild fish whenever possible to avoid the antibiotics and growth hormones, but don't make fish a daily habit. You want your mercury levels on the lower end of the spectrum. Yes, fish are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. However, unless you're an Eskimo, or eat the fattiest cuts of fish, you won't be able to eat enough every day to attain any significant benefit from them. If you didn't already get the memo, fish oil supplementation, like taking Flameout™, is a great way to reap the benefits of eating fish.
The Bottom Line on Organic Meat
Certified Organic meat is hard to find and expensive. "Natural" meats, however, are unregulated and thus require some faith by the consumer.
Still, with "natural" meats you can pick which of the Certified Organic standards appeal to you the most and save some money. I feel that the most beneficial guidelines for the health and performance-minded are "no growth hormones" and "no antibiotics". If your budget allows it, "grass fed" or "grass finished" meats may be worth a look. The rest of the standards probably aren't worth the cost.
There are also Certified Organic and "natural" varieties of dairy products. I feel that these are definitely worth the cost, especially if consumed on a daily basis. Whether Certified Organic or not, I recommend using omega-3 enriched eggs. As far as fish go, look for the "wild" varieties whenever possible, and simply don't eat fish every single day.
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