Meat consumption has long been a point of contention in our society. We are confronted by a plethora of often contradictory advice from a wide range of experts, each invoking scientific rationale to support his or her recommendations. Amid such confusion, what choices regarding meat should an individual begin implementing to improve health?
As is often the case with nutritional advice, meat=bad or meat=good are both misleading oversimplifications. This extreme position either/or mindset may help earn clicks for alarmist publications and inspire emotional debates but it does little to help us make informed decisions. In fact, this type of nutritional approach mostly serves to either frustrate, bewilder, or stratify people toward dogmatic nutritional fringe positions. A brief discussion of some of the benefits and risks to health, sourcing, and varieties of meat available should help to de-mystify the subject. As we shall see, much depends on the quality of the meat and the larger context of the diet
Basic nutritional benefits of meat
Although “Meat” can refer to a wide variety of animal products that can vary greatly in micronutrient content, in general, meat is a rich, concentrated source of protein and essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of tissues; spur growth, repair and rejuvenation throughout the body; and are important for signaling and regulation of countless physiological processes. Protein is composed of varying amounts and ratios of amino acids. The amounts of amino acids in a protein, and their ratios determine the all of the characteristics of that protein and how it will affect the body. The amino acids the body is not able to synthesize itself are called “essential” amino acids, and consequently, humans need to get these from food sources. Even amino acids deemed to be “non-essential”, however have been shown to have important health-promoting effects and several have been identified as contributing to healthy endocrine and neurological function.
Animal protein in general is more easily digestible, concentrated, and bioavailable than plant sourced protein. As it exists in nature, plant protein is bound up in large amounts of water, fiber, enzymes and metabolites. Some of these things are good and health promoting in their own right, but significantly decrease the density and availability of plant protein. Some metabolites and enzymes present in plant foods (primarily those found grains, pseudograins, and legumes) have been specifically evolved by plants to prevent digestion and nutrient utilization. In addition to inhibiting digestion, these compounds (lectins, saponins, agglutinins, prolamins, phytates, etc) can also be potent gut irritants and drivers of inflammation. Along with providing us a denser source of protein, free of anti-nutrients, animal products also offer a superior amino acid profile as compared to plant food, designating them as “complete proteins”. Various plant proteins can be combined to make them “complete”, but considering the other caveats of low density and bioavailability, animal protein would seem to be the superior choice. Needless to say, plant foods (excluding grains, pseudograins, and legumes) offer a wide array of other health benefits besides protein, and should be central to any health-oriented diet.
Animal protein is also an important source of micronutrients, many of which can not be found in significant amounts in plant food. Some of these include (but are not limited to) b vitamins (especially b12), zinc, choline, and vitamin a (as opposed to beta carotene, an antioxidant precursor of vitamin a). Red meat, which in recent decades has been vilified by most of the nutritional establishment, is actually a good source of the nutrients listed above. Red meat is also a great source of many other important vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D, cobalt, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, and selenium. The most nutrient dense animal foods (and the most nutrient dense foods in general) are organ meats and shellfish, but muscle meats are good sources of micronutrients as well. As we shall see, just how good a source of nutrients these meats are can depend on the source.
Meat can come bearing a variety of labels from a variety of sources. It can be organic, free range, grass fed, grass finished, pasture raised, heritage breed, all natural, hormone free, or conventional. Some of these labels can mean a great deal in terms of the nutritional content and environmental impact of the product, and some can mean nothing at all. It is by no means a recent development that food producers of all kinds seek to enhance the marketability of their products by using inflated language and description.
Protein density and amino acid profile are properties that vary animal by animal, but are relatively consistent across different sources of a given species. For example, the protein density and amino acid profile of a factory farm chicken will not be significantly different than that of an organic, free-range chicken. When other nutritional (and ethical) factors are taken into consideration, however, the quality of animal products begins to diverge depending on its source. First, let’s go over the various sourcing labels one is likely to encounter at a farmer’s market or grocery store, and separate the most important ones for maximizing food quality.
Grass fed – requires application and documentation, but no on site inspections are carried out.
Grass finished – many ranchers will raise ruminants on grass, but then “finish” them before slaughter on grain feeding. This practice contaminates the meat, so a “grass finished” label or assurance is often a better choice than simply “grass fed”. The following are several reputable grass fed/ grass finished certification labels:
- PCO certified 100% grassfed
- American Grassfed
- Certified Grassfed by AGW
- NOFA-NY certified 100% grassfed
Pasture raised – means the animals have outdoor access and are free to roam in a pasture environment a minimum of 120 days per year. This label does not make any claims on its own to quality/ content of animal’s diet. Has more to do with animal’s quality of life, but may have some indirect positive impact on nutrition versus conventional meat.
Free Range – For poultry means the animal had some outdoor access, but size and quality of outdoor area are not specified. No inspections are required. For beef outdoor access is allowed for a minimum of 120 days. Again, no inspections are required and there are no specifications for size and quality of outdoor area. Not a very reliable label in terms of measuring food quality.
Organic – For meat, this label means that the animals were raised on certified organic land. This means the land has not been exposed to any prohibited chemicals, synthetic pesticides, genetic modification, or sewage sludge. The animals may not be treated with any hormones or antibiotics, and must have year-round outdoor access. This label indicates that an animal was raised ethically, using environmentally sound practices, and it requires significant documentation and consistent inspections to maintain. On its own, without a grass fed label to go along with it, organic meat producers are still allowed to feed their animals organic grains. Therefore, the most nutritionally compelling label for a ruminant product, such as cows, sheep, and bison, would be “organic” and “grass fed” together. For an omnivore product such as pork or poultry, the most nutritionally compelling label would be both “organic” and “pasture raised” together.
Heritage breed – refers to animals that come from older, rarer, or regional breeding stock. These animals are considered more genetically “well-rounded” than the breeds selected for use in industrial, concentrated feed lot operations. Large scale industrial operation animals have been selected for growth speed, meat yield, and robustness. Heritage breed animals are bred to thrive in their local environments and require less chemical and pharmaceutical intervention to raise. As with pasture raised, this label may bring with it some nutritional benefits, but it mainly indicates a product that is more ethically and ecologically sound.
Antibiotic free – Animals are not fed antibiotics. This requirement is included in the organic certification and is important for the health of the consumer, the animal, and the environment as a whole
Hormone free – The animal is not treated with added hormones to increase growth rate. Applies mostly to larger animals. This requirement is included in the organic certification. Arguably said to have a slight negative impact on human health and animal quality of life.
“All natural” / “natural” – Means the product is minimally processed and free of “artificial” ingredients. On its own this label indicates little to no nutritional or environmental advantage. Mostly an advertising gimmick. Beyond requiring producers to give a brief explanation of the designation “natural”, this label is not regulated at all.
So what exactly do these meat quality standards mean for use nutritionally? For both animals and humans, eating our natural diet, that is the diet that we have most closely evolved to thrive on, helps to keep us at optimal levels of health. Cattle, sheep, and bison thrive on grass (not grains), while pigs and poultry are omnivores (not vegetarians). Pigs can handle some grains in their diet, but enjoy variety of foods, including roots, vegetables, meat, and leaves. Poultry are best equipped of all commonly consumed animals to handle grains and seeds in their diet, but also eat bugs, berries and meat. Cattle, bison, and sheep were meant to subsist on grass and do not tolerate grains well.
Purchasing higher quality meat products (organic, grass fed / pasture raised) means you are purchasing a healthier animal. For example, grass fed / pastured products have been shown to have lower contamination rates of E. coli and salmonella. This is in part due to the grains, hormones, and antibiotics factory farm animals are fed. Factory farm animals develop damaged intestines and other health complications from their feed, which makes them more vulnerable to sickness and infection. The crowded, high-yield oriented conditions exacerbate problems of sanitation, and fuel the need for more antibiotics and faster harvest rates. Grass fed / pastured animals do not share these problems; they are allowed a more natural diet, space to roam, and a more reasonable pace of growth and development.
Grass fed meat in particular has been shown to boast several other benefits over conventionally raised varieties. While conventionally raised beef, for example, is still a considerably nutrient dense food, grass fed varieties have been shown to contain 10 times more vitamin A, 3 times more vitamin E, more B vitamins, and more calcium, magnesium, and potassium than conventional beef.
Another advantage of grass fed meat is its fatty acid profile. Grain consumption skews the meat’s fat content in the direction of omega-6 fats. These omega-6 fats are of the pro-inflammatory variety and represent a disproportionately large percentage of the modern American diet. In grass fed varieties of meat, this ratio is balanced with a greater representation of the anti inflammatory omega-3 fats, resulting in a nutritionally superior fat profile. Perhaps an even greater advantage of grass fed meat in terms of fat content, however, is that grass fed meat has at least double the CLA content of its conventionally raised counterpart. CLA stands for conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid with many important health benefits including improved fat burning, heart disease prevention, and anti-cancer properties.
Along with offering greater nutritional benefits over conventionally raised meats, choosing meats sourced from grass fed and pastured animals provides environmental advantages as well. Free roaming, grazing, pastured animals help to crop vegetation back to encourage new growth, and improve the heath of the soil by providing minerals and microorganisms through their feces and urine. In a pasture environment, nearly all of the “waste products”, like carbon, nitrogen and methane, which are usually labeled as pollutants, are integrated back into the ecosystem, in many cases representing a net gain to soil quality and biodiversity. In contrast, Concentrated Feedlot Operations have a much more deleterious impact on the environment because of the way they manage their waste and try to scale their production. The grains that they feed their cattle irritate the animals’ gastrointestinal systems, which increases their methane production well beyond that of a grass fed animal. The existence of 30 to 60 million bison on the North American plains prior to 1800 suggests that the large-scale production of ruminants is indeed a feasible ecologically sound possibility, provided appropriate care is taken that the animals develop in their natural ecosystem, being fed their natural diet.