Confused about quality read meat and what the labels mean? Keep reading.
Have you ever found yourself at the market overwhelmed and confused by the amount of labels on red meat? We all find ourselves asking: “Which one is the best to buy?” and “Is there a benefit to buying organic, grass-fed, or antibiotic-free red meat?” Before we dive into answering these questions, we want you to always remember that the most important part of purchasing red meat, whether it is grass-fed or grain-fed, is to know where it comes from. Put simply, know the origin and even better, know your farmer!
Red meat is an important staple in your diet, it’s a good source of protein, essential amino acids, zinc and iron.
However, selecting quality red meat is important to ensure you are making a nourishing choice that is not harmful to you or the environment. In this blog, we will simplify your shopping experience by explaining the difference between the countless labels found on red meat and we’ll give you the knowledge to ensure you are selecting a product that is good for your health and the environment! Let’s begin with labeling.
- No Antibiotics: Beware! There is a wide variation of this label used without a standard definition of what it means to be antibiotic-free. Generally it indicates that the whole herd was raised without the routine use of antibiotics. Animals who become sick are given antibiotics but under this claim, they cannot then be sold as a ‘no antibiotic’ product. Since there is no regulation of this label, don’t fall for this claim unless it’s accompanied by the “USDA Process Verified” label or “Global Animal Partnership” label. You can read more about these labels here: http://bit.ly/1eextSy
- Hormone Free/No added Hormones: This label means the animal was never given hormone treatments. The FDA prohibits the use of hormones when raising poultry but NOT in other animals. Again, beware. Do not trust this label when buying your red meat, there is no certification required for a company to claim a product is ‘hormone free’! If you have the option, buy meats with organic and grass-fed labels as these are a better option or be sure to know your farmer and where your red meat comes from.
- Natural: Be careful, this label is also misleading! A natural food, according to the USDA, is one with “no artificial ingredients or added color and is minimally processed.” Under this definition ALL meat is natural; this label does not mean animals were raised without antibiotics or hormones, allowed to graze freely in an outdoor environment or treated humanely.
- Grass-Fed: Under this label, animals are required to eat a diet of natural grass and other forage instead of grains. Grass-fed animals tend to be healthier because they’re eating what their stomachs are designed to eat (meaning they’re healthier and less likely to be sick and need antibiotics). These meats are lower in saturated fat and have a higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids which are known to help fight inflammation in the body! Grass-fed meat is also leaner meaning you get more bang for your buck when you’re not spending money on fat. When you’re buying grass-fed labeled meat, look for labels that state USDA and American Grassfed Association certification on them. This is the label we like to look for when selecting red meat because we know it’s benefiting and supporting the natural ecosystem and is a more nutritious meat!
- Organic: USDA certified organic red meat cannot be treated with any hormones or antibiotics and must be fed only organically grown feed (with NO animal byproducts). This label ensures the animal has had access to the outdoors. However, there is NO regulation on the area or how long animals are allowed outside so it may be minutes or hours each day. Although organic meat is good (because it keeps the hormones and antibiotics out), it does not necessarily mean that the animals were ‘humanely raised’ with room to roam. Buying USDA organic meat is a healthy and smart option when grass-fed meat isn’t available or is out of your budget.
Red Meat buying Tips:
Here are some of the most important things to look for when you are purchasing meat in the grocery store:
- Label: Purchase red meat with a Grass-fed or USDA Organic label or from a local farmer that you trust.
- Color: Look for meat with a rich, dark red color! Do not purchase meat with a brown hue or a sparkly look to it, this meat will be less flavorful and tough.
- Marbling: Marbling is the ribbons of fat that run through the meat. Look for fat that has a white or a light butter color! The more marbling in the meat the higher the fat content and the more tender the meat will be. Leaner cuts of meat will have less marbling and are excellent for slow cooking, stewing or braising and stretching your food dollars.
- Texture: Buy red meat that is firm! It should have a firm texture, including the marbled fat.
- Location and Package date: For a really fresh product, purchase your meat from a local butcher, farm stand store of farmer’s market vendor. As with any meat, always look for the origin and if it’s not local, make sure it is a product of the U.S. Also keep an eye on the date on the meat, you should attempt to buy the freshest meat available.
- Cost: The cost of quality meat, especially grass-fed, is considerably higher but we feel is well worth it for the quality. However, we understand that at times you need to watch your budget so keep in mind that most of the toxins in meat are stored in the fat, so if you are unable to find or afford quality options, you should look to buy lean cuts of conventionally raised meat.
Take home message:
The next time you’re struggling to decide on what meat to buy at the store, remember the trustworthy labels listed above. Even better, know where your meat comes from – hit up your local farmers market where you can interact face-to-face with the farmers. Knowing where your meat comes from is important so that you can ensure healthy farm practices are in place such as local butchering, longer range time (meaning more fresh air and access to forage for the animals) and a less crowded living environment. All of these things mean your meat is raised humanely and is environmental friendly too! AND don’t worry, the extra cost is worth it when the meat on your plate has better nutritional quality, a richer flavor and you can be confident the animal was raised with the best practices in place.
What meat labels do you still find challenging to understand?
Special Thanks to Kara Lechtenberg, Dietetic Student Intern, for authoring this article. Kara is a senior at Colorado State University with an interest in real food, organic farming and sustainability.