Grass-fed, organic, antibiotic-free ... if you're an omnivore and want to make healthy meat and poultry choices, there's quite a range of options to choose from. What do all the designations mean, and how do you decide the best meat to eat for you and your family?
Here's a look at some of the basics to help you navigate your choices in the grocery store and make purchase meat that you can feel good about -- from both an environmental and a health standpoint.
One of the main concerns around eating meat is the amount of fat, especially saturated, that the different cuts contain. When in doubt, it's best to go with lean cuts, which have the highest protein-to-fat ratio.
For poultry, look for skinless cuts, as the skin is high in fat. To further reduce fat content, choose white meat over dark -- for example, chicken breasts instead of thighs. When buying ground poultry, look for at least a 90 percent lean, 10 percent fat ratio, or even lower fat if you can find it.
Leaner cuts tend to dry out more quickly, but there are ways around this. One trick is to go for bone-in chicken breasts, for example, which retain moisture better than boneless cuts.
When it comes to red meat and beef, the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines lean cuts as containing less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams saturated fat per 100-gram serving, while extra-lean cuts contain less than 5 grams total fat and 2 grams saturated fat per serving.
Extra-lean cuts of beef include eye round, sirloin tip side, top round, bottom round, and top sirloin steak. Also, note that cuts marked "choice" or "select" have less fat than those with a "prime" designation. Avoid steaks with visible marbling, and cut off any extra fat before cooking. For ground beef, go for the lowest fat percentage available.
Grass-Fed and Pasture-Raised
When you're browsing the meat counter, you may find phrases such as grass-fed and pasture-raised on some of the packaging. What do these terms mean, and how do they affect the quality of the product?
Animals that are raised out in the pasture have much different nutrient profiles than those raised on factory farms. For example, grass-fed beef has been found to have higher levels of healthy fats, as well as more vitamin A, vitamin E, and antioxidants compared to grain-fed beef.
From an ethical standpoint, animals raised in concentrated animal-feeding operations often lead unhealthy, unhappy lives, and the facilities that raise them emit very large amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are related to livestock farming.
Grass-fed cuts tend to be more expensive, but consider buying them if they're available and your budget allows -- they can be a great choice both for promoting health and for mitigating your impact on the environment.
A common practice in conventional livestock farming is the administration of antibiotics to the animals. This is done to promote growth and lessen the risk of disease within a factory farmer's herd, especially considering the tight quarters these animals are forced to live in. However, the practice is unnecessary, strictly speaking, and there's considerable controversy around it.
Some antibiotics used in these animals are also used in humans to treat disease. Some fear that, with the ingestion of this meat, you're consuming a small percentage of the antibiotic fed to the animal. Others are concerned that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture sets the stage for bacteria to become resistant to these medicines, which could result in outbreaks that are extremely difficult to combat. For many, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are one of the highest-priority public health concerns facing the planet today.
How do you ensure that the meat you buy and consume is antibiotic-free? Most meats produced without antibiotics will say so on the label. When in doubt, choose organic meats, which are forbidden by law to come from antibiotic-treated animals, and research where your meat is coming from, as well as what that facility feeds their livestock.
If you know how to choose lean meat and poultry and are aware of the effects of grass-feeding and antibiotic use in livestock, you should feel well equipped to purchase the best meat to eat for you and your family.