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Your Guide to Making the Best Meat Choices

As summer approaches, you’re likely to be eating a lot more grilled meat, probably in a friend’s backyard.In fact, just five days from now we’ll all be meeting for Memorial Day Murph followed by a BBQ in which Neal grills a lot of beef, chicken, and pork. Which makes this a good time for a little refresher on buying the best meat, what all those labels mean, and answering your burning questions such as “what is the difference between cage free and free range?”

Choosing meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products can be more challenging than other products because – in addition to the nutritional content and quality of the food – there is the welfare of the animal to consider. While I’m no PETA shirt wearing vegan, it’s important to consider how the animals we eat are treated during their lives. This post should help you understand what various terms on the packaging and label means, and use it to make the best choice aligning with your diet and lifestyle.

What You Need To Know About Your Chicken Label

Chicken is a great source of lean protein. A 3.5 ounce serving of cooked skinless, boneless chicken breast is a great source of protein, with 31 grams. Chicken also has a little iron (1 mg per serving, or 1/16th of an adult woman’s daily requirements).

As a baseline, conventional chickens are raised in large warehouses with little to no access to the outdoors. This list covers some of the more common words and phrases you might see on a package of chicken, in no particular order.

Natural – this label means the food has no artificial colors, and has been minimally processed. Most of the chicken in the meat aisle fits the bill for the natural label.

Kosher – this provides no information about how the chicken was raised, but instead means that it was processed under the supervision of a rabbi. Kosher chicken is no more or less healthy than any other kind.

Organic – organic poultry must meet the following requirements: appropriate housing that permits natural behavior and outdoor access, certified organic feed, no antibiotics, drugs, or synthetic medications to fight parasites, and organic processing of meat and eggs.  Organic chicken farmers must also avoid any production that contaminates soil or water, and may not use any GMOs.

Hormone free/no hormones – hormones actually aren’t allowed in the raising of poultry. Seeing “no hormones” on a package of chicken is like seeing “no lead added” to a can of soda. This is why regulations state that any package containing a “no hormone” label must also state “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Free range – according to the FDA, this means farmers must prove the chickens had access to outdoor space. The National Chicken Council notes that there are no formal regulations for free range chickens, so they are approved on a case by case basis, generally getting the OK if the chickens have access to the outdoors at some point during the day, whether they take advantage or not.

See more in the original post.


The biggest differences between conventional and organic and humanely raised chickens lies not in the nutrient value of the bird on your plate, but rather on the way that animal was produced and cared for (or not). And I’m here to guilt no one. So, if you can afford it (and it is a priority for you) then your best bet is a farm, farmer’s market, or meat share. Organic is a close second. Of course, it need not be absolute. If you have a little room in your budget but not much, you can buy half organic half not. Or free range eggs and conventional chicken.

If you are very concerned about the welfare of your chicken, but can’t do a farm, i recommend checking out Whole Foods 5 Step Animal Welfare rating. It’s easy to understand and help you hit the sweet spot of welfare and affordability.

What You Need to Know About Your Beef Label

You’ll see some similar terms on beef and chicken labels, but regulations are different for some – like hormones.

No hormones  – this can be used if enough documentation is submitted to the USDA to support the claim.

No antibiotics – again, this can be used if enough documentation is submitted to the USDA stop support the claim.

Natural – this generally refers to minimal processing. Since the USDA does not define the word “natural,” the label must include an explanation of what the producer means by this.

Grass Fed – this generally refers to beef that is raised in a pasture and fed grass, forge, or hay (when grass is unavailable) following weaning. The USDA established standards for grass fed beef in 2007, but in 2016 revoked their definition. This means they’ll still regulate the grass fed process, but will no longer define the term. Their reasoning for this move was twofold: one was that few farmers (only 4 producers) were using their grass fed program, and second that private certification of grass fed already exists and has been working well.

Private certifiers include American Grassfed, Food Alliance, and Animal Welfare Approved. These three certifiers differ slightly, but for the most part certified animals must be fed solely grass (no grains, corn, soya, or legumes), must have access to open pastures to forage, and must be given no antibiotics or hormones.


As I’ve written before, it is best to consume beef 1-2 times per week at most.

A quick review of research indicates that eating organic beef (versus conventional) does not necessarily reduce the risk of cancer associated with red meat (Hernandez 2015). Another study indicated that organic and summer finished beef has a lower omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio and a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional and winter finished beef (Kamihro 2015). A 2011 study (Brown 2011) found no difference in health markers among women who consumed either a diet high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA – a fatty acid found in dairy and beef thought to cause fat loss) from organic beef or one lower in CLA from conventional beef, though I have some questions about the length of study (only 56 days) as well as the nutrient profile (13% protein, 54% carbohydrates).

While I will admit this is not an extensive review, I think it’s safe to say that more research is needed to compare the benefits of conventional versus organic beef products.

So, as before, your choice between conventional and organic or grass fed beef is based predominantly on sustainability and animal welfare concerns. And that tends to be a more personal choice than I can advise.

Additional Sources

The United States Department of Agriculture http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/meat-and-poultry-labeling-terms/meat-and-poultry-labeling-terms

The National Chicken Council Chickopedia http://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/chick


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