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February 18th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 7
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Grass-Fed Meats
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Grass-fed, grain-fed, vegetarian fed, free range, cage-free. These are words that you may be familiar with when it comes to buying meat and eggs. In my last column I wrote about the mistaken belief that eating saturated fat from foods such as meat, dairy and eggs puts you at risk of developing heart disease. While current research tells us that eating foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol is not harmful, there is one caveat; the quality of the meat and other animal products that you’re eating has a major impact on the quality of the food. Unfortunately, we live in a world where most of our food is produced for quantity, not quality. Consuming these low-quality foods comes at a cost to our health, the health of the planet and the lives of the animals that we consume. So how do you know what to look for when purchasing meat? There are a few key words to look for and I’ll explain why.
I always look for the terms “grass-fed” or “pastured,” as well as “organic” when I buy meat, dairy and eggs. As these terms suggest, the animals are free to roam and eat grass, the preferred food of ruminants. Ruminants are animals, including cows, goats and sheep, with multiple stomach chambers that allow them to digest certain plant foods that humans cannot, such as grass and other plants and shrubs. Animals that are grass-fed produce meat that is exceptionally high in nutrients, as discussed below.
Unfortunately, most of the meat found in supermarkets today comes from animals that are raised in large feedlots and rarely have access to the outdoors. Conventionally raised (not pastured or organic) cows are fed diets of soy, corn and other grains to fatten them up for slaughter as quickly as possible. Their feed often contains off-putting fillers such as chicken feathers and industrial garbage. This low-quality feed, while cheap for farmers, breeds illness in the cows and produces nutrient-poor meat. To prevent such illnesses and to increase the speed of growth, antibiotics and growth hormones are often added to the feed as well.
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So what does a cow’s diet have to do with our health? The short answer is, everything. You know that old adage, “You are what you eat”? Well, that’s true of our animal counterparts as well, and can be extended to humans as “you are what your food eats.” Take antibiotics as an example. The antibiotics that are fed to the cow show up in the meat that you eat. This can wreak havoc on your intestinal flora (the healthy population of bacteria that exists in your gut and plays a critical role in your health), which can lead to any number of illnesses. The growth hormones you consume with this meat can disrupt the balance of hormones in your own body. Eating organic, grass-fed beef eliminates exposure to these chemicals and also increases your intake of important nutrients.
One of the greatest benefits of eating grass-fed meat is the omega-3 fat content. The omega fats (omega-3 and omega-6) are called essential fatty acids, as we must obtain them from our diet. Omega-6 fats are found in grains, seeds and their oils, among other foods. While they are important for our health, our diets in the Western world tend to be disproportionately high in omega-6 fats. These fats have an inflammatory effect on the body, which is beneficial to a degree. Excess inflammation, however, contributes to many illnesses, ranging from arthritis to heart disease to cancer. Omega-3 fats, on the other hand, are anti-inflammatory and have the opposite effect on the body. They come from grass and green vegetables, among other foods, and are found in the meat of animals that eat grass. It is important that we obtain a balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in our diet and choosing the right meat is an easy way to find that balance. Organic grass-fed meat is also higher in other nutrients like vitamin E, beta-carotene and some B-vitamins, and lowers your risk of contamination from bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella.
Eating ethically raised meat is also a great way to support local farmers and businesses. While the meat that you find in the supermarket may come from hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away, grass-fed and organic meat is usually locally sourced. Increasing the demand for this kind of product can really benefit the farmers in your community. Pasturing animals also means that they live happy, disease free lives. Not only is it better for farmers, for the animals and for your health, buying pastured or grass-fed meats is much better for the environment. Factory farms and feedlots place a great deal of strain on local ecosystems. The chemicals that are fed to the animals can leach into the groundwater and contaminate local water sources. Raising animals on pasture, however, reduces erosion, decreases water pollution and helps to conserve the soil.
While grass-fed meat is certainly the best choice for health, it can be difficult to find and is usually quite expensive. If incorporating grass-fed meats into your diet is not feasible, don’t fear. I’ve compiled a list of the options available and ranked them according to their nutrient value. In order from healthiest to least healthy, certified organic grass-fed is at the top, followed by organic grain-fed/vegetarian fed, then hormone and antibiotic-free, free-range, and finally conventional at the bottom of the list. If you can’t find or afford organic or grass-fed meat, make sure to stick to the leaner cuts that you do buy. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, this will decrease your intake of omega-6 fats. Secondly, pesticides and other chemicals are stored in the fat cells of animals so eating less of the fat will decrease your exposure to these toxic chemicals. The most important thing to remember, however, is to do the best that you can for you and your family. Grass-fed meat is not easy to come by in the Elk Valley, but Cincott Organic Market in Fernie carries a small selection, and if you’re willing to venture a little further, Cutter Ranch in Fort Steele specializes in pastured pig, lamb and cow. You can buy large quantities straight from the farm at a discounted price.
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February 18th ~ Vol. 85 No. 7
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