After my recent post on grass fed beef, I thought it might be useful to explain the various terms that get used to describe the different animal products you can buy. In the paleo community, grass fed beef is held in high regard and is advocated as the preferred choice for healthy to eat meat.
But when you shop at the grocery store you’ll see all kinds of labels, like “natural”, “organic”, “grass-fed”, “grass-finished”, “vegetarian”, etc.
It’s easy to get confused about what the different terms mean, and you might end up leaving the store with a product that is completely different from what you thought you had.
Free range is a term which generally denotes a method of farming where the animals are allowed to roam freely instead of being contained in any manner. In the United States, USDA regulations apply only to poultry and indicate that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. Technically, a free range animal could eat a grain diet and might be able to wander around in a pen, rather than a field.
Animals raised on a primarily forage diet are termed pasture-raised. This term is often confused with the term “free range” which does not describe exactly what the animals eat. It should be noted that pasture feed might be brought in from another area in the case of drought, so the quality of grass could be questionable.
Organic foods are those that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. This doesn’t provide any information about whether the animal was pastured or grain-fed.
The definition of “natural” can be confusing. According to the USDA, natural means that a product is minimally processed and contains no additives. By this definition, most beef in the grocery store is natural. This can be rather ambiguous, and I tend to think that it’s more of a marketing gimmick rather than a useful product differentiation.
This merely means that the animal was fed a vegetarian diet, which could be a wide range of things like corn, soy, or grass. The significance is that the animal wasn’t fed meat, which is often that case in heavily industrialized food producers.
Consumers typically don’t know that most cattle spend the majority of their lives eating grass in pastures. However, some producers do call their beef grass fed but then actually finish the animals on grain until slaughter.
Finishing is just another word for the time that cattle are normally fattened for the last few months before processing.
Grain-fed beef cattle usually spend most of their lives in range or pasture conditions eating grass. However, at the 12 to 18 month mark they’re moved to a feedlot where they’ll spend four to six more months eating a ration of corn, silage, hay and distillers grains (leftover from making alcohol). This has become the norm for economic reasons, since the cow will fatten much faster this way.
Grass-finished cattle eat only a grass and forage-based diet throughout their whole lifespan. This type of beef production most correctly provides the environment that cows would expect. Ruminating animals just aren’t well adapted to eating grains, with the resulting acidic imbalance leading to a host of digestive problems.
So, there you go. It’s a complicated market but as far as beef goes, getting your meat from free roaming cows eating grass from verdant fields is probably the way to go. It’s better for the animals, and it’s more nutritious for you. If you can get it certified organic as well, then that’s practically the holy grail of beef products.