• Wednesday, August 24, 2011

    What is the difference between ‘Organic’, ‘Natural’, and ‘Grass-fed’ meat?

    I know you have seen lots of claims about 'Natural' or 'Organic' or 'Grass-fed' on meat labels in the grocery store and in menus at restaurants. Along with that, there always seems to be something on TV or the radio or the internet about organic this or natural that and people making claims why this product or that one is better than all the rest. What most people don’t realize is what those claims really mean when they are printed on a meat label or in a restaurant.

    Since I've written this post, I've also done a series of posts on food labels.

    Organic. The United States Department of Agriculture (through the Ag. Marketing Service) manages the National Organic Program which certifies producers that produce and handle organic produce. Organically raised livestock must be in compliance with the National Organic Program rules beginning at the last 1/3 of gestation. They must be only fed organic feed and allowed to graze only organically-managed pastures. They are not to be given hormones or any other growth-promoting agents, and only allowed to be given vaccines when they are not sick (nothing else). There are requirements that they must be allowed access to outdoors. All of these regulations are certified by agencies accredited through USDA. In order to place the USDA organic seal on the label of a product, it must be made with 95% or greater organic ingredients. Meat labeled as “organic” is very expensive because it costs a lot to produce.
    Natural. Lots of people think that ‘Natural’ is the same as ‘Organic’. It is not. According to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, a product with the word ‘Natural’ on the label must be …

     A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").

    So, ‘Natural’ is pretty open-ended. It usually comes with another claim like ‘no antibiotics added’ or maybe ‘grass-fed’. Other than that, it’s pretty similar to all the other meat you see. If it doesn’t say ‘grass-fed’, it’s probably not. If it doesn’t say ‘no antibiotics’, they may have been given. Realize that antibiotics have regulations for food animals that ALL producers must follow, natural or not.

    The USDA has a nice webpage explaining requirements for several phrases we see on meat labels.

    Grass-fed. Most people understand that, in the United States, producers feed cattle grain for the last 3 or 4 months of their life. This is an efficient way to get the cattle to gain weight and fatten to a point where American consumers like to eat beef. Face it, most of us like juicy, tender beef, and that comes from fat beef. Some people don’t like their beef fattened this way. Several countries around the world don’t feed cattle like this. Some cattle spend their entire lives eating grass. Grass-fed beef is generally leaner and has a stronger flavor than grain-fed beef. Some people like it that way (not me).

    2016 Amendment. Some of the rules for labeling meat as grass-fed have changed lately, but the premise has stayed the same. Meat processors that want to label their product as 'Grass fed' must have each label approved independently, so technically, the label could mean something slightly different for each company. However, small and very small processors can still use the 'Grass fed' label with the following definition.  The animal must have only been allowed to eat grass or hay for its entire life (except milk when they are babies). They should also be allowed continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

    Grass-feeding takes a longer time to get cattle large enough to slaughter, and there is not as much meat on grass-fed beef. So, it costs more.

    I am not trying to say that meat labeled as ‘Natural’ or ‘Organic’ or ‘Grass-fed’ is any better or worse than any other meat you may find in a grocery store or a restaurant. I will tell you that it is also not any safer or more nutritious than other meat. I just tell people, eat what you like, and when it comes to food labels, know what you are paying for.


    1. There is quite a nutritional difference in pastured vs non pastured or "feedlot" cattle and lamb. You even alluded to the fact by stating that pastured cattle are "generally leaner".

      What does "generally leaner" mean to you?

      Grass-fed beef is lower in calories, contains less saturated fat and more healthy omega-3 fats, more vitamins A and E, higher levels of antioxidants, and up to seven times the beta-carotene.

      1. Thank you so much for you comment!
        You are right. As a whole, grass fed beef is leaner than cattle fed grain. Leaner beef has fewer calories than fatter.
        There are also significantly more omega-3 fatty acids in grass fed beef. Now, the question is if that difference is meaningful enough to have an impact on human health? And, I don't believe it is.
        Vitamin A (beta carotene) may also be found at higher levels in grass fed beef, but beef is not really known as a great dietary source of vitamins A and E. So, again I don't think the impact on human health would be meaningful.
        Thanks again,

    2. "Now, the question is if that difference is meaningful enough to have an impact on human health? And, I don't believe it is"

      The key here is that you "believe".

      Here is some research regarding the subject .......http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/greener-pastures.pdf.

      According to the study there is a significant difference in the fatty acid ratio. Pasture (1/3) + alfalfa/corn concentrate (2/3) had a 5.3 omega 6/omega 3 ratio while pastured had a ratio of 0.7. The ratio is quite significant if your diet (as most Americans do) consist of alot of beef, particularly the fattier (cheaper) cuts. Essentially a large percentage of your fats are going to be unbalanced in fatty acids.

      A diet that is balanced in fatty acids has been shown to prevent a whole host of diseases and ailments that are so prevalent in our society. Here is a jumping off point for your readers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essential_fatty_acid#cite_note-20

      1. Again, I really appreciate your interest in this and thanks for providing me with this publication.

        Honestly, when I first saw the source of your articles, I was concerned that they would be from biased sources. However, when I read your first citation, I realized that was not the case. But, you will find that this article doesn't really support the grass-fed claims as strongly as you believe.
        In the Executive Summary on page 2, the authors state that steaks from grass-fed cattle tend to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acid ALA. In scientific writing the word 'tend' means that the numbers may or may not be different.
        It also states that grass-fed steaks sometimes have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acid EPA. Sometimes.
        They say that grass fed beef usually has higher levels of CLA. Usually.
        The authors state that producers should 'maximize the days spent on grass' not that they should move to feeding entirely grass, which is what is required by USDA to label meat as grass-fed.
        They go on to say that 'more research is needed' to determine the effect of these fat substances on heart disease, cancer, and human health.

        When you get into the 'guts' of the publication, on pg 48, the authors state that the Vitamin E level in both beef types are very low and only represent a small portion of the Recommended Daily Allowance for Vitamin E.
        For Vitamin A, they state that grass-fed steaks only provided 2% of the RDA.
        On page 50, they state that adequate intake of ALA (omege 3) is 1350 mg and for a food to be considered a 'good source of a nutrient' it should provide at least 10% of the adequate intake (135 mg). In the table on page 44, the highest reported amount of ALA in a serving of grass-fed beef was 90mg.
        On page 51, the authors do state that grass-fed beef would be considered a 'good source' of EPA because the grass-fed samples would provide at least 10% of adequate intake, but they weren't really sure what that was.

        Your second source was from Wikipedia. I don't allow students in my class to use Wikipedia as a reference, but this article seemed to outline the positive things about essential fatty acids in the diet. I didn't see that it included grass-fed beef as a source. Fish from cold environments are a good source.

        Some researchers have been looking into the human benefits of eating beef from cattle fed only grass and this popular press article discussed them. http://www.americancattlemen.com/articles/corn-fed-vs-grass-fed

        I must apologize. I wanted to provide you with the scientific articles this story refers to, but I am not at my desk and I haven't been able to locate them. However, I would gladly get them to you if you wish. Why don't you email me directly? jws09@uark.edu

        Thanks again for the great discussion!

    3. The americancattleman.com article is quite contradictory and misleading. Not to mention it is has a vested interest in the traditional production of beef. Biased?? Regardless, the article quotes Daniel Rule who basically says that grassfed beef contains less fat so therefore you are getting even less of the fatty acids overall. After this statement I found myself asking “wait, what happened to the premise that the difference in fatty acids quantities were insignificant”? The professor is also purposefully or maybe ignorantly leaving out the fact that all essential fatty acids are not created equally. The fatty acid ratio is more in balance with grassfed beef, so that eating grassfed beef provides less Omega 3’s vs Omega 6’s than traditional beef but provides significantly less Omega 6’s, which is the key.

      You have also referenced a paragraph from the pdf I linked that I will take issue with. You cite that in order for a food product to be a good source of ALA that is should contain 10% of the adequate intake and that the highest sample of grassfed only provided 90 mg resulting in less than 10% (6.6% to be correct).

      The issue that I take here is that we are not discussing which food product is best in providing ALA. We are discussing the merits of pastured vs grain finished. We could certainly find greater amounts elsewhere. So in staying within the context of the discussion… the same graph on pg 44 shows that one sample study (Rule et al 2002) determined feedlot cattle (those finished on grain) provided 6 mg of ALA and another (Duckett et al. 1993) found cattle finished on 140 days of concentrate to have 8 mg of ALA . A significant difference! So if you stand by your assertion that pastured cattle is not a quality source of ALA than you have to agree that traditional cattle are a considerably poorer choice for ALA.

      Regarding Wikipedia…. It is a fine jumping off point that provides sources for most of the content. The sources are usually hyperlinked which makes fact checking extremely convenient. If I were a professor I would also not allow Wikipedia as a cited source however that does not negate the usefulness of the site itself, especially if getting the general idea of a topic is the goal.

    4. I would like to add a completely unscientific twist to all of this. Growing up on a ranch the beef that we ate was never grain fed. The result was we ate a lot of beef that was lean, tough and "gamey" flavored. This grassfed beef would have to be significantly better for you because we ate significantly smaller servings than we would when we had "store bought" or grain fed beef.

      The grass-fed beef is just not as good to eat.

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      1. Thanks for the nice comment. Sometimes blogger marks comments as spam and I can't fix it until I can get to my computer.

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    7. HI, a neighbor sent me to your blog! I am hosting 14 families at our feedlot next week and was wondering what to present..I think I will present some of this info..thanks!

    8. I am so glad I found your blog. I don't eat a lot of meat but I feel better about what I do eat now. It is great to finally see the other side. Thank you.