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Healthy Balance

Decoding the Meat Mystery: Organic Chicken, Cage-Free Eggs and Grass-Fed Beef

I have a confession: I am one of those annoying people at the grocery store.

Only poultry can be labeled free range, but you might see the words "grass fed," "pasture raised," "organic" or "natural" on this steak's packaging.
Only poultry can be labeled free range, but you might see the words “grass fed,” “pasture raised,” “organic” or “natural” on this steak’s packaging.

While everyone else is trying to grab and go, I’m in the way, staring intently at the shelves of meat in a kind of puzzled panic. A few years ago, I didn’t think much about it. But then I began seeing all kinds of buzzwords on the packaging — “organic,” “free range,” “cage free,” “natural,” “no hormones added.” Not only did they all seem interchangeable, but those buzzwords came with a higher price tag.

Reading articles suggesting that hormones in meat could lead to young girls starting puberty earlier didn’t help. And let’s not forget, of course, the news stories about the “pink slime” in ground beef.

Were these stories real? What did all this jargon mean? Was it worth the extra price tag? Why would my chicken not be “natural”?

It turns out I’m not the only one who’s confused.

I felt like my questions were silly when I first contacted Carole Havrila, a registered dietitian with the UVA Cancer Center. When I met her in her office, she had stacks of information from various nutrition resources. But even Havrila has to review the many vocabulary words that turn up on meat packaging.

Here’s a guide to deciphering all those words, based on my conversation with Havrila and U.S. Department of Agriculture information.

Glossary of Meat Labels

Cage-free: This sounds like it’s interchangeable with free range, but it only applies to egg-laying hens. They aren’t in a cage and have unlimited access to food and water. But they don’t necessarily get to go outside.

Free-range:  This term only applies to poultry that will eventually end up on your dinner plate, not egg-laying hens or any other animals. It means the animal must be allowed to go outside. “There’s no regulated standard for how big that area needs to be or how long they get to be out there,” Havrila says.

Grass-fed: Only applies to ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats and bison. The animal must have continuous access to a pasture during the growing season and can only be fed grass, forbs, legumes and cereal grains still in a pre-grain (vegetative) state.

According to USDA regulations, animals labeled “grass-fed” also cannot be confined to a pen or feed lot or given antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.

Natural: Minimally processed and no artificial colors and flavorings. Without this label, beef may have color added so it will retain a redder, fresh appearance instead of turning brown at the store.

Naturally raised: Applies to livestock raised without added hormones and antibiotics.

No hormones added: This is the one that tripped me up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits the use of growth hormones in poultry, pigs raised for pork, veal calves and exotic meat such as bison. If a manufacturer wants to say, “No hormones added” on the packaging of these meats, it must include a disclaimer explaining this. But the disclaimer might be in easily-overlooked tiny print.

“It’s like when a vegan product says, ‘cholesterol free,’ when the only place cholesterol comes from is animals,” Havrila says. “I’ve seen people spend more money to buy poultry that says, ‘no hormones.’”

Organic: Can apply to any meat. The animals were not given antibiotics or hormones and their feed contained no synthetic herbicides or pesticides. The manufacturer must get organic certification from an independent agency.

“The meat will have natural hormones,” Havrila says. “Just like we have hormones in our body, animals do too.”

Pasture raised: Animal lived outdoors without confinement.

Organic, Free Range, Grass-Fed: Which One Is the Best?

Havrila says there’s not much reliable research about the health effects of the various meat designations, but some studies suggest the antibiotics and hormones can have negative health effects, including causing early puberty in girls.

The breast cancer patients Havrila works with worry about the effects of added hormones on tumors that need estrogen to grow.  “My answer is, if you’re going to worry about this every time you eat meat, maybe it’s worthwhile for you to buy organic meat,” Havrila says.

And for the rest of us: “Until there’s more data, people have to weigh what eating meat is worth. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may be a little more sensitive to the concerns about hormones.”

Research does show the meat from organic and grass-fed animals can be higher in healthy fatty acids, Havrila says. “The grain that they’re fed has other things in it, including antibiotics. The grain is manipulated and can have additives,” she says. “You get a heavier cow when they eat grain. They have more fat, and the fatty acid profile is going to be a little different. The omega-3’s that we hear about being so good, we don’t really get a lot of those in beef, but if they’re pasture-raised, they tend to be a little higher in them.”

But organic meat or meat from grass-fed animals is more expensive. Havrila’s suggestion: Cut back on meat consumption and enjoy some meatless meals. The USDA recommends between five and six ounces of meat or other protein foods per day for most adults, but many Americans eat way more than that.

When you do buy meat, pay a little extra for organic and grass-fed, Havrila recommends.

Cancer and Red Meat: Health Advice for Omnivores

Hormones and fatty acids aren’t the only things you should be thinking about when it comes to meat intake. Studies show a link between red and processed meat consumption and colon cancer.

Eating up to 18 ounces of red meat a week is OK, Havrila says. But any amount of processed meats, which includes sandwich meat, hot dogs, sausage and bacon, can increase your colon cancer risk.

If you’re trying to cut back on fat but still want to eat ground beef, she suggests looking for chuck or round. If you’re making something like meat loaf, combine ground turkey breast with ground round. Ground turkey includes skin, Havrila explains, but ground turkey breast is very lean.

Organic: Worth the Money?

The next time I went to the grocery store, I took a long look at the packaging on the chicken I usually buy. Sure enough, the word “no hormones” had an asterisk next to it, with teeny letters explaining that federal regulations prohibited giving chickens hormones.

I wasn’t paying extra for absolutely nothing, though. The chicken also said “free-range,” which I prefer.

But I also noticed that for only $1 more a pound, I could get organic chicken. An extra dollar a pound may not be feasible for someone with a large family, but in my household of one, consuming a pound of chicken about every other week, it’s well worth it.

And maybe I’ll start celebrating Meatless Monday a little more often.

What About Organic Produce?

Check out our blog post about when to buy organic fruits and vegetables.

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