“Natural,” “Hormone-Free,” “Free-Range,” “Grass-Fed,” “Organic,” “Antibiotic-Free”
If the news of the California cow afflicted mad cow disease has scared you meatless, or, at the very least, made you think about your beef options, I thought it was a good idea to give you the facts about what mad cow is and some healthier beef products at your supermarket.
While there hasn’t been a single case of mad cow in the US in six years, since 1986, when the disease was first found in Britain, 184,000 cows and 150 people have diet globally from the neurological condition.
Mad Cow Disease: What Is it?
Mad cow or BSE stands for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a deadly disease of the brain and nervous system. The brain-wasting illness is contracted when cows consume infected protein from other cows. Humans can contract the disease if they eat infected brain or spinal cord tissue.
Conventional cattle raised for beef usually spend the end of their life on large commercial feedlots, where they are fattened up on a grain-based diet. Antibiotics are laced in the feed and hormones are given to fend off infections and speed muscle growth. Though those practices are not much appreciated among consumers, they do not pose a threat for the development of BSE.
However, conventional feeding practices also allow poultry manure, restaurant meat scraps and blood from ruminant animals, all of which are risky. Whenever cattle are fed animal tissue, there is the chance that BSE could be contracted or spread.
While experts content the risk of contracting BSE is extremely low, that hasn’t stopped many Americans from buying “organic,” “natural” or “grass-fed” beef which is safer because these cattle are fed vegetarian diets.
Making a choice at the meat counter is overwhelming with “organic,” “natural,” “grass-fed” and many other better-for-you-sounding options. Other than the certified organic label, there’s a lot of room for creative interpretation of the meat label lingo. Here’s our guide to better beef:
USDA Certified Organic: Organic beef (or any other organic livestock) are fed organic plant-based feed, are not given antibiotics (sick animals treated must be sold to the conventional market) or growth hormones and must have access to pasture.
Organic meats are not nutritionally different from conventional but are better environmentally and are the gold standard for safety when it comes to BSE because adhere to the strictest feeding policies. The only downside of organic beef is the price. The cost of producing organic cattle is pricey and that’s passed on to you and me at the checkout.
Natural: By government definition, natural means that there are no artificial colors or additives and is minimally processed. However, natural” on most meat labels means more than “natural’ on other foods.
Most ‘natural’ meats mean that the animals have not been treated with antibiotics or hormones and are fed vegetarian diets. The only reason why we can’t convert all of our cattle to ‘organic’ is due to the lack of organic feed.” However, to be sure of what “natural” means before purchasing, read the label closely and be sure that it defines “natural.” If the label is unclear, contact the company via their website or by phone to ask about feeding practices or the use of antibiotics or hormones.
Grass-fed: Grass-fed meats mean that the animal had access to pasture. However, even conventional cattle may spend some time on a pasture, but that does not mean that it spent all of its life roaming on green acres. Sometimes, it means that the animal was raised for some time on open pasture but may have lived in crowded feedlots at other times. Look for 100% grass-fed on labels or contact the company to find out exactly what they mean by their definition.
A growing number of health-conscious athletes who are cutting back on red meat and poultry. These part-time vegetarians are referred to as flexitarians. Flexitarians are those less-scrict vegetarians who eat meatless for some meals, but not all.. Most do so as an effort to improve their diet and overall health. I would consider myself a flexitarian because I eat meat, poultry and dairy products but also go for days without having any meat or poultry and generally eat 90% plant-based foods.
Since there are so many meat-free options available now, it’s relatively easy to go meatless. It’s also been shown to be an effective way to lose weight, reduce cholesterol, improve your overall health and wellness, when you eat a balanced diet including lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains and other lean protein options in place of meat. I’ve also seen many of vegetarians who gain weight or can’t lose weight because their diets are unbalanced and provide too much refined grains, sugars, fats and sweets. Just because you follow a vegetarian diet doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy.
A great resource to give you more inspiration and recipes ideas is Meatless Mondays, a national public health campaign designed to help Americans go meat-free for one day a week.
–Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD