Sunday, May 23, 2010

Solving the Meat Label Mystery...

Health organizations, dietary guidelines and the media have led us to believe that the consumption of meat, especially red meat, leads to an early grave.  Red meats (beef, pork, lamb, etc.) have long been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and early death.  Well, times are FINALLY changing and a recent Harvard Study concluded that the risk associated with red meat is for the most part from the processed variety.  What that means is that the saturated fat in steaks, hamburgers, chops, roasts, etc. may not be 'deadly' as previously thought.  But processed meats like bacon, sausage, deli meat, ham, hot dogs, etc., which are high in salt, preservatives, nitrites, and nitrates, are more worrisome.  The study showed that frequent consumption of processed meat products increased the risk of developing heart disease by 42% and diabetes by 19%. 

Unprocessed, grass fed, hormone-free, organic meats are by and far the best for nutritional, environmental, and ethical reasons.  Walking down the meat aisle it's easy to get drawn in by meat package label claims like 'all natural', 'USDA Choice', and 'free range'.  But knowing what all those claims mean and making the best choices isn't easy.  Here's a quick primer to help you take the mystery out of buying meat.

Free Range
Products: Chicken, other poultry, eggs.
What It Means: The chicken or other bird must 'have access to the outdoors for 51% of its life'.
What It Doesn't Mean: The bird is running free in a large pasture.  Often, 'outside' is a small pen.

Antibiotic Free
Products: Beef, Pork, Poultry, etc.
What It Means: Exactly what it says and that it's going to cost about $2 more per pound.
What It Doesn't Mean: The meat is organic.

Products: Beef, Pork, Poultry, Eggs, etc.
What It Means: The animal was fed organic feed and 'had access to' a pasture.
What It Doesn't Mean: The animal was grass fed.  The USDA standards have been questioned in many cases.

USDA Choice
Products: Beef
What It Means: The USDA 'grades' beef based on it's fat content (marbling) and its age.  'Prime' has the highest degree of marbling, followed by 'Choice' and then 'Select', which is the leanest.
What It Doesn't Mean: That it is truly the best 'choice'.

All Natural
Products: Primarily Beef and Poultry
What It Means: Not much.  The product claims to be 'minimally' processed and to have no 'artificial' ingredients.  The USDA doesn't strictly regulate the use of this claim.  Buyer Beware!!
What It Doesn't Mean: That the product is organic, grass fed, or free of added ingredients.

Choose your meats carefully!  Be informed. Look for grass-fed, organic, unprocessed, lean meats. Your body and the environment will thank you!



  1. Hi Amy,

    I appreciate your article although some of your information is incorrect. Please let me correct a couple of items.

    "Antibiotic Free" - does not mean organic although organic is always antibiotic free. There are many producers today that are not feeding or even giving antibiotics. Any animal can be "Antibiotic Free".

    "Organic" - does not mean grassfed. "Organic" can be grassfed but can also be grain fed as long as the grain is organic certified. "Organic" is not always the best choice.

    "All Natural" - does not mean organic or grassfed. "All Natural" by USDA means nothing, most producers that claim "All Natural" mean antibiotic and hormone free.

    Given those corrections, one may ask "What meat should I eat then?" Grassfed beef has been scientifically proven to be the healthiest meat produced. The best option is to know the producer that provides your beef. There are a number of sites that will help you find a local producer but I recommend you visit the ranch/farm before you buy to see how the producer raises his animals if possible.

    Thank you for you site and post.

    Joey Jones

  2. Joey,

    Thank you so much for the information! You are truly an expert in the area!! I greatly appreciate your added input and thanks so much for visiting my site!

    Have a Great Day!

  3. So I finally understand what free range is. Too bad I myself am not free range. Always cooped up in my office pen. ugh.

    (that All Natural label gives me a fright)