Published on March 10th, 2014 | by Healthy Gay Lifestyles
What is the Difference Between Organic and Grass-Fed Beef?
by Terry Shanahan
What does Organic, Grass-fed, Grass-finished Mean and Why Is It Important?
Organic food is produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Many people realize that organic food is better for them because the synthetic herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers, and the antibiotics and hormones in livestock, all of which are part of conventional agriculture, are all likely to result in terrible long-term health outcomes. Also, non-organic agricultural measures are generally very bad for the environment because of the contamination to the animals and ecosystems. The contaminants poison these animals and ecosystems in the same way that they poison us.
On the Paleo Diet we are interested in having foods that are very high quality and as similar as possible to the foods that our ancestors ate during Paleolithic times. Our ancestors ate organic food without exception because synthetic agricultural chemicals had not been invented, but our ancestors also ate what today we would consider to be “grass-fed, grass-finished” animals and animal products.
Grass-fed simply means that animals are eating their natural diet instead of the artificial diet of corn and soy that animals now eat in conventional agriculture. What are the natural diets of livestock? The natural diet of both cows and sheep are grasses; the natural diet of goats is grass and shrubs; chickens naturally eat grass, weeds, bugs, worms and other things they can catch; turkeys eat mostly wild plants but some animal matter too when they can catch it like bugs and worms; and hogs eat roots, fruits, vegetable matter but also some animal matter that they find in the environment.
What about fish? What do they eat and is there such a thing as a grass-fed fish? Speaking generally about the natural diet of fish: small fish eat algae and zooplankton, and larger fish eat the smaller fish. Algae is sort of like the grass of the lakes and oceans in that it is photosynthetic and makes up the base of the food chain in water ecosystems. Horrifyingly, corn and soy have now permeated the conventional agricultural system, and now farm-raised fish of all sizes get corn and soy as large parts of their diet!
What is so good about the natural diet of animals compared to the conventional agricultural diet? When animals have a chance to eat their natural diet they are both healthier, and offer better nutrition for us to eat as food items. Grass-fed animals don’t require all the antibiotics to keep them alive like the animals in the industrial food system which quickly get sick on the corn and soy diet.
Animals raised in industrialized conventional agriculture actually have very similar gut health issues to the humans who are consuming them. It turns out that all the corn and soy causes and overgrowth of the wrong kinds of gut bacteria for these livestock. Also, grass-fed animals have a ration of Omega-6 to Omega-3 essential fatty acids that is close to 1:1. In contrast, corn-fed animals can have unhealthy ratios that are more like 10:1 or even as high as 20:1 depending on how much corn and soy is in their diet. This is important for the humans consuming these animals because Omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory and their over-consumption can contribute to inflammatory health conditions like heart disease, arthritis, and many others. In contrast, Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory. Maintaining a healthy ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 essential fatty acids is one of the goals of the Paleo Diet because it keeps down excess inflammation.
That is the basics of “grass-fed” animals. What does “grass-finished” mean? There is a tendency in our food system today to raise animals on corn and soy. However, some people try to get away with selling the higher-priced “grass-fed” meats by raising the animals on grass but then fattening them up for market on corn and soy! As you can imagine this feeding technique negatively affects the fat profile of the animal. In the end you want livestock with all three attributes: organic, grass-fed, and grass finished.
Where Can I Buy Organic, Properly Raised Animal Products?
Local farms: Often you can purchase whole- or half-cows from local farmers either directly from them or from your local farmers market. This is a great way to pick up some grass-fed, grass-finished beef at an affordable price. Often these local farmers will offer other kinds of meat like pork or poultry, and they often also sell chicken eggs from their farm. You can usually purchase smaller quantities too like frozen 1lb. packages of ground beef.
Health food stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joes often have grass-fed selections. More and more standard grocery-store chains are carrying organic, grass-fed, grass-finished meat as well.
Long-distance mail-order/internet sites have great prices on organic, grass-fed, grass-finished animal products. US Wellness Meats is a great example of such a source with excellent pricing.
The best place to buy fish is either at a fish market or a health food store. Some conventional grocery stores or warehouse clubs like Costco may also have wild caught fish. Ideally fish should have these three attributes to make them healthy:
- The fish should be wild-caught (not farm raised). The reason is that farm-raised fish are eating corn and soy! Wild caught fish have an algae-based diet.
- The fish should be smaller, herbivorous or omnivorous species of fish (plant-eaters, or plant and animal eaters, respectively) because larger, carnivorous fish have a tendency to biomagnify toxins. This means that larger, predatory species of fish have disproportionally high levels of toxins like heavy metals and organic pollutants like PAHs, PCBs, and many others. Sardines, anchovies, cod, and tilapia are examples of smaller fish species that are herbivorous or omnivorous which have less biomagnified toxin loads than the larger fish higher on the food chain. Salmon are medium sized, carnivorous fish but can still be eaten. Some experts suggest eating salmon in more moderate quantities than the smaller fish mentioned.
- The fish should be species that are not on the brink of population collapse. Many cod fisheries around the world are on the verge of collapse and this is unfortunate because cod is a very healthy fish. If we eat too many of them then they will go extinct or at least fade back to population levels that are not commercially viable for the fish market anymore. There are a few smart-phone apps that help to choose the most sustainable types of fish. Examples are “Seafood Watch”, “FishPhone”, and “Safe Seafood”.
Shrimp, crabs, crayfish, oysters, clams, scallops, etc. are also on the Paleo Diet. Each type has a different advantage with respect to their nutritional features. The sustainability issue arises with shellfish as it does with regular fish, and so do toxicity issues, so keep your eyes out for the most environmentally sustainable and safe kinds to eat. The apps above should help with shellfish as well.
You can get optimally raised eggs from a farmer, a health food store, or keep your own back yard hens! Just as in chicken meat, look for chicken eggs from animals that are eating grass, weeds, bugs, worms, and kitchen scraps. Avoid grain-fed chicken eggs even if they are organic.
Dairy is not part of the Paleo Diet but some people with solid digestive health incorporate Raw Dairy into their diet and do very well. You will want to source dairy from a dairy farmer who understands and sells raw milk. It is important for many people to be completely dairy-free because they are affected negatively by the protein in milk, casein, that is pro-inflammatory; and many people are lactose intolerant (they don’t digest the milk sugar called lactose very well). But for people who are able to consume dairy here is what to consider:
- Goat’s milk is a lot less inflammatory than cow’s milk because the kind of casein protein in goat’s milk is less inflammatory than that of most cow milks, the possible exception to this being cow milk from “A2″ cows. A2 is the kind of casein that goats have. A few cows have this less inflammatory form of casein but you must source this milk from dairies that know the genetics of their cows and market the milk as “A2″ milk. Unfortunately, this is pretty difficult to prove or verify. Goat’s milk can be purchase at grocery stores. A2 cow’s milk must come from a dairy farmer. Outside the USA it may be easier to source A2 milk, but in the USA you have to purchase it special from a dairy farmer.
- Pasturized and homogenized milk has been super-heated and had its fats broken down into little tiny particles, respectively. The heat in the pasteurization process destroys vitamins and enzymes. This is why they fortify milk with vitamin D. The little particles of fat from homogenization may contribute to artery damage, so raw milk that is both un-pasteurized and un-homogenized is probably better for long-term health. In the United States, raw milk, whether from a goat or a cow, must come directly from a dairy farmer because grocery stores are generally not able to carry it for legal/health code reasons.
- Consider culturing dairy products like kefir. The probiotic benefits of kefir can help with your gut health and thereby reduce inflammation in your body. Dairies that sell raw milk also have kefir colonies that you can purchase.
Animal Source Issues Seem Complicated, How Important Is All Of This?
Ultimately, animal products are the most important part of the Paleo diet to source correctly because so many problems arise from improperly sourced animal foods: toxicity from pollution such as agricultural residues, antibiotics, hormones, and the poor fat profiles of the meat. When you add in the environmental and ethical problems associated with factory farming and over-harvesting/over-fishing issues then the true costs of improperly sourced animal products are colossal.
If the meat-source attributes mentioned in this blog post seem too burdensome economically or too much to keep track of then here is what you can do. Don’t’ overwhelm yourself. Take one item at a time and convert from eating an unhealthy form of it to a healthy form of it within your own home. The health benefits and environmental benefits far outweigh the costs in the long-term and it is worth a slow but disciplined effort to make the transition.
This post was co-authored by Paul Hotchkin M.S., FDN
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and the information in this blog should not be construed as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease, ailment, or condition. If you have any medical questions or you are seeking medical advice, you must consult a professional. Additionally, no part of this article or any information on this site will ever replace medical advice.
Terry Shanahan is a Functional Diagnostic Nutritionist student, Certified Metabolic Typing Advisor, Certified CrossFit Coach, Entrepreneur, Paleo Nutrition advocate & coach. He has a passion for wellness, performance, & personal development. Follow him on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, & YouTube. Check out his website at www.theshanahanplan.com.