Shopping for meat, fish, and eggs can leave you confused and conflicted. What’s the healthy, sustainable choice?
Standing in front of the meat counter at the supermarket, you’re stumped. You scan labels promising “organic” beef, “all-natural” chicken, and Atlantic salmon “high in omega-3s!” The egg case is another exercise in label decoding, heralding eggs from “free-range” and “vegetarian-fed” hens.
When did buying everyday meat, fish, and eggs get so complicated?
Unless you’re well schooled on what these marketing labels are really saying, you can easily be misguided. And, unfortunately, the savvier you become about the sources of these products, the more concerns you’re likely to have about finding basic animal protein that you can feel good about feeding your family.
In addition to concerns about the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified or pesticide-laden animal feed — all of which have implications for human health — you might worry about the treatment of the animals themselves. After all, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), in which animals are raised in enclosed environments without access to green space, are a hallmark of large-scale efficiency in industrialized farming. Animals living in these conditions face stressful, crowded, unsanitary conditions, which translate to health concerns for humans, including antibiotic resistance and food-borne illness.
You may also be concerned about the toll large-scale meat operations take on the environment. Raising cattle for burgers and steaks on feedlots, for example, generates more climate-warming greenhouse gases than transportation does, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
One commonly advocated solution for these concerns is to simply eat less meat. “If you’re talking about feedlot or processed meat, certainly it makes sense to eat less. [Though] I wouldn’t advise eating any,” says John Bagnulo, PhD, MPH, a nutritionist and educator based in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
So what’s a concerned carnivore to do? You can start by learning as much as possible about where your animal protein comes from. Seek out high standards of animal welfare and sustainability, which correspond to better nutrition for you. The following pages offer advice about sourcing healthy choices — where to go, what to look for, and how to make what can be a pricey selection more affordable.
Red meat has a bad reputation, but its detractors ignore the significant ethical, environmental, and nutritional differences between processed meat from feedlot animals and meat from livestock raised on pasture. To get the full benefits of beef — a good source of vitamins A, B6, B12, D, and E, as well as iron, zinc, and selenium — go for grassfed.
Why it’s a great choice: Cattle are ruminants, with four stomach chambers evolved to digest grasses. And if they eat grass — rather than grains and a cocktail of antibiotics and hormones to promote growth and stave off feedlot-borne diseases — the beef they produce supplies a greater nutritional windfall.
“Grassfed cattle consume more micronutrients, which are transferred into the meat we consume,” says Bagnulo. Grassfed beef is a better source of immune-boosting conjugated linoleic acid, as well as antioxidants and precursors for fat-soluble vitamins A and E. Further, it delivers a more balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce your risk for chronic diseases associated with internal inflammation.
Grassfed beef is also safer to eat. After testing 458 pounds of ground beef purchased from stores, Consumer Reports investigators determined that conventional beef is more likely than sustainably and humanely raised beef to be contaminated with bacteria linked to food-poisoning outbreaks, as well as antibiotic-resistant superbugs, thanks to the liberal use of antibiotics in feedlot operations. (For more on the benefits of grassfed beef, see “Grass-Fed Goodness: Beef“.)
What to look for: Look to buy direct from a farmer specializing in grassfed beef; try your local farmers’ market or CSA. You can find pasture-based farms by state at www.eatwild.com.
Otherwise, select a product sporting the green label from the American Grassfed Association, a third-party organization that guarantees the animals were 100 percent grassfed and grass-finished. (Grassfed cattle are often fattened up on grain at the end of their lives, which is less healthy for you and can cause painful bloating in the animals.) This certification also guarantees the animals were never treated with antibiotics or hormones, and were raised and harvested humanely.
Choose USDA certified organic if you want meat from cattle that were fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, were never admin-istered antibiotics, and were raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors. Note, though, that a straight-up organic label does not mean that the animals had unlimited access to grass.
Make it more affordable: A slab of grassfed tenderloin will set you back a pretty penny, but ground grassfed beef and other less-expensive cuts (check out roasts, hanger and other steaks, as well as stew meat) can help you strike a better balance between purchasing healthier meat and keeping your food budget in check.
Better yet, go in with some friends and purchase the rights to a whole grassfed animal from a local producer. Just be sure to have freezer space ready.
Versatile and seemingly ubiquitous, “chicken is often called upon when people are looking to get plenty of protein but cut back on red meat,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, coauthor of Eat Clean, Stay Lean. A 3-ounce portion (about the size of your palm or a deck of cards) contains 23 grams of protein and delivers a healthy dose of niacin, vitamin B6, and selenium.
Chickens require less feed and don’t produce methane gas (as cattle do), making their carbon footprint about six times smaller than that of cattle. The best chicken to eat? One that lived a healthy lifestyle.
Why it’s a great choice: Unlike chickens raised in CAFOs, those allowed to forage outdoors make for healthier and more palate-pleasing meat. A recent analysis published by the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) showed that a 100-gram serving (roughly 3.5 ounces) of skin-on, pasture-raised chicken had an average omega-3 to omega-6 fatty-acid ratio of 1:5 — compared with 1:15 in a same-size serving of conventionally raised chicken.
The birds also delivered an average of 17.8 IU of vitamin D3 per 100 grams; nonpastured test samples did not register vitamin D3 greater than 0.5 IU. “The high presence of vitamin D3 in the pastured [animals] indicates the influence the exposure to sunlight has on the chickens,” according to the APPPA report.
What to look for: Finding true pasture-raised chicken requires a bit of searching, so your best bet, again, is getting to know a local producer (the website LocalHarvest.org can help lead the way). Look for the terms “pasture-raised” or “pastured” on marketing labels, which indicate the birds ate grass, bugs, and other chicken favorites.
Ideally, you’ll find pastured chicken that is also certified organic. Note that the organic label alone means that the chicken’s feed was organic, the bird was not administered antibiotics, and it had outdoor access — not that the bird ever foraged. But “USDA Organic” is still an important differentiator: A 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that antibiotic-free organic poultry operations test for significantly lower levels of drug-resistant bacteria than CAFOs do; there, birds are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease in crowded quarters.
Beware of misleading labels. Because of huge loopholes in regulations, the term “free-range” is an advertising phrase with no legal definition and doesn’t mean that the birds ever actually ventured outdoors. Chickens are omnivorous, so a label touting an “all-vegetarian diet” is a red flag that the bird probably didn’t have access to its natural diet in addition to supplemental feed. Also, hormone use is not permitted in any poultry production, so a “hormone-free” label is irrelevant.
Make it more affordable: To save money on pasture-raised or organic chicken, Bazilian suggests buying dark meat (wings, thighs, and drumsticks) rather than white meat, which is often sold at a premium. Dark meat is not only juicier, but it’s also loaded with vitamins, iron, zinc, and heart-healthy taurine. (See “From Bland to Grand” for more on the health benefits of dark meat.) Look for bone-in cuts, since deboning adds to production costs.
Buying whole birds can also reduce the per-pound cost. “When you buy a whole bird, you have an opportunity to not only eat the meat but make homemade broth with the carcass,” Bazilian says. And as with beef, you can team up with friends and buy in bulk from a local farmer.
There are plenty of sunny sides to having a carton of eggs in your fridge — and not just because the USDA exonerated dietary cholesterol in its latest Dietary Guidelines. “Eggs are a good source of protein, with yolks providing important nutrients like lecithin, choline, vitamin A, and vitamin E,” says Bazilian.
Eggs are rich in antioxidants, and a 2015 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study revealed that regularly eating eggs can improve blood-sugar control and reduce inflammation. But there’s more to buying eggs than just choosing between brown and white (which are nutritionally indistinguishable).
Why they’re a great choice: Pastured birds make nutrient-dense eggs with higher levels of essential nutrients, including vitamins A and E, and omega-3 fats, according to Pennsylvania State University research. This makes sense when you consider that foraged plants like alfalfa and clover can contain a nutrient profile that’s superior to standard feed, says Bazilian. Eggs produced by hens that forage deliver higher vitamin D levels than the eggs produced by birds confined to the indoors.
What to look for: Watch for the term “pastured” on the carton to know that the eggs come from hens that had access to natural food sources (usually in addition to feed). Eggs sporting the “certified organic” label hail from hens raised outside of cages, allowed outdoor access (though not necessarily pasture), and provided organically grown feed containing no conventional pesticides, animal byproducts such as slaughterhouse waste, or GMOs. They also are given no antibiotics, which have been linked to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bugs. Note, however, that eggs that are organic but not pastured may not provide a nutritional advantage since the birds may spend little time foraging.
“Cage-free” or “free-range” chickens are likely not as free as you think. Again, there is no legal definition for what these terms mean. Even laying hens whose eggs are labeled “certified humane free range” by the organization Humane Farm Animal Care are guaranteed only 2 square feet of space. Harsh practices such as debeaking and forced molting, which entails withholding feed to increase egg-production rates, can still occur.
Make it more affordable: Though the price for pastured eggs is more than you would pay for conventional (reflecting the costs of raising them), Bazilian notes that they are still a less expensive protein source than conventionally grown meat. You may save a little by buying from a local farmer or co-op.
Wild Alaskan Salmon
Few fish are as rich and healthy for you as salmon. It’s a stellar source of protein, vitamin B12, selenium, the omega-3 dynamic duo of EPA and DHA, and astaxanthin, the potent antioxidant that gives salmon its pink hue. But to net the most benefits, you’ll want to choose carefully: Like beef, chicken, and eggs, not all salmon is created equal.
Why it’s a great choice: Grill up a palm-size portion of wild sockeye and you’ll get more than twice the recommended minimum intake of omega-3 fats. By fattening up on krill and tiny crustaceans — instead of the vegetable oils and grains used in many farm operations — wild salmon have an ideal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Farmed salmon (often labeled “Atlantic”) is criticized for high levels of contaminants, the overuse of antibiotics, pollution of surrounding waterways, and nonsecure marine pens. Serving up more controversy is the recent FDA ruling that allows the sale of farmed GMO salmon.
What to look for: For a fillet or steak, free-living species hailing from Alaska — Chinook (or king), chum, coho, pink, and sockeye — are considered the gold standard, delivering on nutrition, sustainability, and animal welfare. (Check out www.seafoodwatch.org for ocean-friendly choices.)
Canned salmon (look for the word “wild” on the label) can actually have a nutritional advantage over fresh if you select a brand that includes the soft, chewable bones, which provide a shot of bone-building calcium. Canned sockeye delivers about 64 percent more vitamin D and 38 percent extra omega-3s than canned pink salmon. Brands like Crown Prince and Wild Planet come in BPA-free tins.
Make it more affordable: Frozen is less expensive than fresh — and flash-freezing on boats soon after the fish have been hauled onboard results in little loss in flavor, says Ryan Bigelow, outreach program manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. “Canned salmon also lets producers use more parts of the fish and get more of their product to the market,” he adds. So selecting canned salmon is one way to take a bite out of food waste.