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In today’s post, we’re talking about your quality meat options, why higher quality (especially grass-fed) proteins have a positive impact on our health, and how you can find dependable sources for your own home.
Today’s post is brought to you in partnership with my friends at ButcherBox! ButcherBox delivers grass-fed/grass-finished beef, chicken, and heritage breed pork to your door each month. The animals are humanely raised and are never introduced to hormones or antibiotics. I have been a loyal fan and customer of ButcherBox for over a year now and LOVE my monthly ButcherBox delivery because it helps me get healthy, nutrient-packed protein on my table with ease. To order your own ButcherBox, click HERE to score an additional $15 off + free bacon with your order.
Navigating the SEA of protein options out there can be a little overwhelming. Not only do we have to learn the differences in our options (grass-fed, grain-fed, organic, etc.), but also learn about how to differentiate those options in a variety of labeling tactics. Let’s review some of these options, talk about the benefits of quality meats, and then talk about the different ways you can source these for your own home.
Okay, break it down. What are my protein options?
Before I get into some basic categories, I want to start by saying that there are exceptions to every rule at just about every turn. What’s most important is that you do your research (consider this a starting place) and start asking lots of questions.
First, let’s just briefly cover what *just about* every cow’s life looks like at the BEGINNING…
You see, MOST cows (nod: with all kinds of exceptions) are actually raised on grass (with their mothers) at the beginning of their lives. It’s where they go FROM HERE that the controversy really starts.
Conventional – The name “conventional,” at its heart, coneys that this is the convention – also known as the norm. The GRAND majority of the beef raised & consumed here in the United States falls into this category. When you go to the grocery store, the majority of the proteins available there are “conventional.” Conventional cows are transferred from the “nursery” to a WIDE variety of feed lots, but most all of them have one main goal: keep the cow from falling ill (not diseased) and growing as fast as possible. These cows are typically administered hormones (to help promote said rapid growth) and antibiotics. In general, the antibiotics are administered for a couple of reasons. The first, and most obvious reason, is because it’s far less expensive (in $$) to administer the medicine than have disease take out the herd. Why would the cows get sick? These “conventionally raised” animals are typically kept in incredibly close quarters where disease can breed and spread quickly. The second, and less obvious reason, is that the antibiotics (just like in humans) actually have a devastating impact on the natural gut microbiome (a crucial part of the animal’s metabolisms). With a broken/reduced biome, animals can actually convert food more quickly into body mass (read: fat) as they’re not being first metabolized (for nutrients, mind you) by the bacteria.
In these feed lots (a general term – again, you’ll find exceptions everywhere), their one focus is to quickly gain weight in muscle + fat. Many are fed a mixed diet of grain + soy + some dried grasses. It’s the general principle, in the name of the bottom line, to turn over cows as quickly as possible that have plenty of marbling – believed by mainstream to represent more flavor (more on that later).
Though the metabolic condition of a cow is VASTLY different from that of a human, you can reasonably draw at least this correlation: one fast way to gain body fat is to consume more food (especially carbohydrates, and especially in the form of grains) than our body needs. With little else to do than eat, these cows do just that. Noshing on a signature feed mixture (you’ll find ranchers each have their own methods) that plumps them up quickly.
Another basic correlation you can draw from human to bovine health is that when we give the body the nutrients that the body was MADE to consume (real food for us humans, grass for the cows), it thrives efficiently. Conversely, when you give the body nutrients that the body was NOT MADE to consume, inflammation (and a lot of it) becomes a byproduct.
Organic – I want to tackle this classification next because it’s one that you’ll probably see more often than the rest (at least, in a grocery store). Organic beef (or any other animal) generally means that the feed the animals were given is organic and also non-GMO. These animals were not administered hormones or antibiotics and are required to have access to the outdoors, except during inclement weather. Click HERE to see the USDA’s organic livestock requirements.
Grass-Fed / Grain-Finished – This category, in some sense, can be considered no different than conventional beef. Because just about ALL cows start off with their mothers on grass, the notation that they’re “grain-finished” isn’t that great of an end product distinguisher. Again, looking for the type of feed (organic, non-GMO) and whether they were administered hormones or antibiotics will tell you much more about how the animal was raised than this category.
Grass-Fed / Grass-Finished – This means that the animal was started on grass, finished on grass (no fillers, grains, grain byproducts, or soy), and also not administered hormones + antibiotics. However, it does not exclusively signify that the animal was able to live its entire life in open pasture (as you might think). There are some ranches that are producing “grass-fed / grass-finished” beef where the animals are *still* transferred to smaller quarters and given dried grass vs. pasture. Check out my interview with Mike Salguero, owner of ButcherBox, for more on this HERE. These animals take longer to reach a size for harvest and, if they’re raised in the original spirit of the category, take up a good deal of pasture space per head. It’s important to think about WHERE you get your grass-fed/grass-finished beef. Ask questions of your ranchers OR (like I do) lean on a company (ahem, like ButcherBox) that vets these sources for you.
NOTE: I’m actually a part of a family that raises cattle and understand that if your pasture has no natural grasses at the moment (could be a cause of unfortunate dry weather), you must supplement with dried grass (think: hay). There’s a LOT that goes into raising cattle and each rancher will have their own method. I encourage you to strike up a conversations with your sources and learn as much as you can.
Okay I’m with you. Now, what are the health benefits and WHY is it worth putting high-quality, grass-fed meats on my radar?
Let’s break this answer up into two categories. First, let’s talk about the nutritional reason to AVOID conventional beef and then the nutritional reasons to ENJOY grass-fed beef.
Why Avoid Conventional – You’ve likely heard the phrase, “you are what you eat.” Let’s take this one step further and talk about, “you are what you eat, eats.” Think of that steak on your plate as less a steak and more a product of all that went into the making of the steak. If that steak was sourced from a true “conventionally-raised” cow, it will (almost certainly) contain:
- Trace hormones (or their metabolic byproducts, like insulin-like growth factors) that were administered to the animal to encourage rapid growth, especially a few months before slaughter. Note that more recent literature points to the dangers being HOW those hormones alter the meat and less about consumers being at risk of directly consuming an amount of hormones that could have negative health impact. It’s the insulin-like growth factors that have been linked to an increase incident of cancer. Chris Kresser does a great job covering this in more detail HERE.
- Trace antibiotics that were administered to the animal to prevent disease. Even though the USDA does have a period of time the animal must go without antibiotics administered before slaughter (with the hope that it’s processed out of its body), properties of the medicines still find their way into the blood stream and the tissue (and onto our plates).
- Trace pesticides that make their way from the feed to the animal’s tissues (especially the fatty tissues).
Why Gravitate Towards Grass-Fed – YES, grass-fed proteins are more expensive than conventional …but this is because they’re more expensive to raise. The animals take longer to mature and require more land (just to name a few). That being said, the benefits of what you’re avoiding in grass-fed beef + what nutrients you’re able to consume are tremendous:
- No trace hormones (or their byproducts).
- No antibiotics.
- No trace pesticides.
- A good profile of saturated fats. There are several different types of saturated fats, but just three that I want to focus on for this conversation: stearic, palmitic, and myristic. Even though those of us in the Real Food movement understand that saturated fats aren’t to be fearsed (like was conventional wisdom of not too long ago), one mainstay has been that stearic acids (which are found in higher concentration in grass-fed beef) are especially beneficial for our health.
- Great source of the polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is touted for it’s impressive antioxidant capabilities and is found in more than double the concentration in grass-fed vs. conventional beef.
- A significant boost in omega-3 fatty acids (could be thought of as the anti-inflammatory fatty acid via the ratio to omega-6 fatty acids).
- MUCH HIGHER (opposed to nearly negligible) amounts of other vitamins and minerals found in grass-fed beef. Going back to “you are what you eat, eats,” these grass-fed cows are eating vitamin & mineral-rich fresh grasses, which find their way into the animal’s tissues and then onto our plates.
- Supporting a (likely) more humanely raised animal. Note: there are conventional ranchers who would argue that their animals are humanely raised as well – this is another example of “there are plenty of exceptions.” Do your research and ask questions of your sources.
At the end of the day, choose powerfully (after educating yourself) what ends up on your plate.
Is grass-fed right for you?
This is a personal question with a personal answer! You’ll find no shortage of debate around the topic, but if you’re looking to optimize the nutrients on your plate, I strongly encourage you consider grass-fed proteins. The nutrient density (and therefore, “bang for your buck“) found in grass-fed protein is TREMENDOUS. If you have the curiosity, the desire to optimize health, and the interest to enjoy some of the best-tasting cuts out there, I think you may enjoy grass-fed proteins.
This all sounds great, but how do I actually find grass-fed beef?
I want to chat about three different options! They all have their own pros and cons.
ONE – The Grocery Store
- Pro’s: highly accessible! It’s just around the corner, after-all.
- Con’s: Will cost you the MOST if you’re purchasing *true* grass-fed/grass-finished beef (you’re paying for that convenience). This is also where label trickery reigns supreme, so you’re more likely to buy something other than you may intend. Remember, ask the butcher lots of questions!
TWO – Your Local Rancher
- Pro’s: you get to actually talk to the producer and hear about their methods! This option is also likely to be much more affordable than the grocery store.
- Con’s: there’s a good chance they only sell in bulk (think: cow share) and these can be tough to come by, especially if you’re living in the middle of a metropolis. Check out Eat Wild for a directory that may help you find a source and NOTE – not all of the ranches listed there produce true grass-fed proteins.
THREE – ButcherBox
- Pro’s: they pre-vet the meat sources to make sure you’re getting TRUE grass-fed proteins, the price is highly competitive (less than $6 per meal), and the quality/delivery is consistent (you don’t even have to think about it – it just shows up each month and you’re good to go!).
- Con’s: you don’t get to support local ranching efforts, but sometimes that is just not an option.
I hope you enjoyed this post and find it helpful while you navigate your grass-fed protein options!
Remember: to order your own ButcherBox, click HERE to score an additional $15 off + free bacon with your order.