Why Non-Pastured Meat and Eggs Are Junk Food

Herding pastured cattle

Above is an idyllic photo of a herd of cattle being driven out to pasture by yours truly in the expansive valley east of the Crazy Mountains in central Montana. They aren’t my cattle but are part of a herd managed by my husband’s cousin, who calls on her relatives every year in springtime to help with branding.

My husband and I are fortunate to know exactly where a majority of our food comes from. In addition to owning some of our own cattle, we also hunt and fish and manage a small flock of chickens, who lay for us delicious eggs with deep orange yolks. When I feed my family meat and eggs, I feel confident that they are receiving high-quality fats and proteins in the proportions intended by nature.

Unlike my husband and I, many people (probably you) are unable to harvest their own meat and eggs. They are confronted instead with an array of choices in the supermarket, labeled with confusing and often misleading catch phrases such as “organic,” “free range,” “vegetarian-fed,” and “hormone free,” along with the standard non-hyped meat and egg products.

As a consumer, it’s becoming increasingly important to know what these labels mean as well as to be aware of what goes into the animals’ bodies before they go into your body. More and more processors are now catering to consumers’ desire to make healthy choices at the supermarket but do not actually care about their health. The label “free range,” for example, is allowed on any package of eggs (or chicken breasts, thighs, and wings) as long as the chickens they come from have access to the outdoors while they are alive, which in most cases means they are allowed to roam a very small strip of land outside of the industrial-sized coop that houses them along with thousands and thousands of other birds; hardly the free-range picture most consumers have in mind when they purchase free-range eggs (which sell for more than regular eggs despite the fact that they are hardly raised any differently).

In my post on federal food policy, I discuss the ubiquitousness of corn in our food system, including in the animals we eat. Most concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)–which is where most of the meat, poultry, and eggs in the supermarket comes from–use corn and soy as the base for their feeds. Animals fed a high-corn diet develop a different, and unhealthy, ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in their systems, which researchers are now associating with high levels of chronic disease. Chickens, like other birds, are biologically suited to a diverse diet of bugs, worms, grasses, legumes, and whatever else they encounter as they peck around on the ground in the sunshine. Cattle have a digestive system suited to grasses and are healthiest when allowed to roam and graze across large outdoor expanses.

When animals AREN’T fed the diets for which they are suited they are more likely to become ill, a likelihood that is further compounded when they are confined in close quarters with other animals. Consequently, most cattle and chickens raised in CAFOs require antibiotics. But get this: the antibiotics aren’t just doled out to prevent and treat disease; they are also administered to induce weight gain, which results in greater returns for the seller since most animals are paid for by the pound.

What on earth do antibiotics have to do with weight gain? The answer is linked to one of the fascinating new findings about the human microbiome discussed in Dr. David Permutter’s new book Brain Maker, which I overview in my post on gut health. Researchers have discovered that there are certain strains of bacteria that are able to extract more calories out of food than others and that those strains happen to thrive when antibiotics are given (which will kill other strains of bacteria that keep the fat-inducing strains in check). When our gut flora–or that of a pig or steer or chicken–becomes unbalanced in this way, we will absorb more of the calories from our food and gain more weight. As a result of this phenomenon, the administration of antibiotics proves to be an easy way to produce cheaper meat. This is a big reason why meat that isn’t truly free range is so cheap, yet we will all be paying the price in the form of the antibiotic resistant diseases that are becoming increasingly common. If you come across a package of meat that claims to be hormone free (which it may be), don’t assume the animal from which that meat came was raised in a healthy manner; it could just mean that antibiotics were used to induce weight gain rather than growth hormones.

In 2011, the latest year for which Perlmutter had data upon the writing of his book, fully 80 percent of antibiotic sales in the United States went to livestock, not people. But if you’re a person who eats factory-farmed meat, then you too are ingesting these antibiotics as well as all of the other toxins and genetically modified substances that these animals come into contact with during their lifetimes. You’re also contributing to a major pollution problem by supporting an industry that concentrates animal waste in disgusting proportions rather than allowing it to scatter across acres and acres of land and act as a natural fertilizer as animals roam, which is what nature intended (for an insightful and humorous look at how poop can and should be used, pick up a copy of Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, by Gene Logsdon).

Not all grass-fed and organic operations are necessarily sustainable, either, but they are leaps and bounds better than CAFOs (by the way, the “organic” label can be trusted if you see the USDA Certified Organic seal on the package–but if you don’t, be wary). Your best bet for high-quality meat is to buy it from a local or regional farmer or rancher, even if they aren’t certified organic (just make sure they don’t use hormones or antibiotics). Farmers’ markets and butcher shops are great places to find quality meats because they are places where you can ask questions and get answers about where your meat really comes from (you can also try asking the manager at your local grocery store, but s/he may not have all of the answers). Not sure where to find a farmers’ market or butcher shop in your area? Check out the website Eat Local Grown or contact a nearby Weston A. Price Foundation chapter. You will pay more for quality meat at the checkout but what you’ll save in healthcare costs down the road will surely make your free-range and grass-fed sources more economical in the long run.

If you have the space for a chest freezer, you can make free-range and grass-fed meats more affordable by purchasing them in bulk. Many farmers, ranchers, and butchers will sell a “quarter beef” or “half beef,” which means you’ll get a quarter or half of the meat from an entire steer (or pig), which can be processed to your liking. If you purchase a whole chicken rather than the individual parts (such as boneless, skinless breasts and thighs), you will also make buying better meat more affordable. See my post on slow-cooker chicken and broth for an easy and delicious way to prepare whole chickens.

As for eggs, if you can’t get to a farmers’ market and don’t have neighbors or friends with chickens, your best bet is to purchase eggs fed an omega-3 rich diet (this typically means that flaxseed is mixed in with the standard corn and soy fed to CAFO birds). It isn’t ideal but it’s better than buying eggs from birds fed strictly corn and soy. You might also consider getting a few backyard chickens of your own if your town or city allows it (many do). You can also ask your local grocer or health food store if they’d consider sourcing eggs from nearby farmers; our food co-op buys eggs from anyone who has chickens of their own and more eggs than they can eat and then sells them to their customers.

It is becoming increasingly clear to researchers and to anyone who pays attention to the news and its reports of ever-rising morbidity rates from diet-related diseases that what we eat matters–and that what we eat eats matters, too. Don’t be lulled by cheaper prices into buying meat and eggs that are bad for your health and bad for the environment. If you need to cut costs somewhere, cut out organic fruits and veggies and buy organic meat and eggs instead. According to Dr. Mercola,

Animal products, like meat, butter, milk, and eggs, are the most important to buy organic, since animal products tend to bioaccumulate toxins from their pesticide-laced feed, concentrating them to far higher concentrations than are typically present in vegetables.

So make room in your budget for healthier meats and eggs and make the proportions smaller if necessary so that you can afford to do so. You’ll be doing a wonderful favor for yourself, your family, and the planet.

How Federal Food Policy Fails Us All

IMG_0449

Above is a photo of the mangy munchkin playing dead in a sandbox full of corn at the county fair this past August. At two years old, she couldn’t see the irony in her drama, but it didn’t escape me. Corn, as I see it, is at the root of America’s rising death rates from obesity and chronic disease. Let me share with you just a little bit of the story told by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma along with some of my own research into the practices of the FDA, the federal Food and Drug Administration.

If you’ve ever driven across the midwest, you have a sense of the vast amounts of corn produced in the United States. Mile after mile of cornfields line the highways and county roads, stretching as far as the eyes can see. But where does all that corn go? Americans, after all, aren’t known for our corn consumption. We eat corn on the cob in the fall and make the occasional batch of cornbread to go along with our chili, but we certainly don’t eat enough corn to justify it occupying more land than any other crop in the country.

Or do we? Pollan shares how scientists have compared the carbon isotypes in the skin and hair of North Americans from the United States and from Mexico–where corn is a staple of the daily diet–and have found that residents of the United States comprise far more corn than Mexicans. We are what we eat, and apparently we eat a lot of corn.

If you’ve ever read the ingredients list on a packaged food product, this fact shouldn’t surprise you. Corn oil, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, ethanol, sorbitol, mannitol, xanthum gum, modified and unmodified food starches, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are just a few of the processed ingredients extracted out of a kernel of corn to make that kernel profitable. Oh, and those “natural” flavorings in your foods? They most likely come from corn, too, whether the food itself has anything to do with corn; “natural” just means it isn’t synthetic, but it can still be highly processed. Also, when you eat meat, unless you take care to purchase it from grass-fed animals, you are also eating corn since a significant portion of the corn grown on American soil goes to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens. Animals fed a high-corn diet have a different, and unhealthy, ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, which researchers are now associating with high levels of chronic disease.

Why and how is corn so ubiquitous in our food chain? It turns out that corn is a particularly productive crop to grow in terms of extracting the largest number of calories per acre; it was also one of the first patented hybridized crops developed to produce uniform yields, making it an excellent candidate for industrialization. Over the years, the food industry has colluded with the federal government to keep the price of corn low by pushing legislation that provides subsidies to corn farmers in the form of direct payments to make up the difference between an established target price for corn and the actual market price. Such policy encourages farmers to flood the market with corn because they know the government will make up the difference between the lower market price caused by a surplus and the established target price. Consequently, market prices stay low since supply is so high, meaning major food companies can purchase corn on the cheap to turn into the multifaceted ingredients you read on food labels.

And what of the health and safety of the corn derivatives and other “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) additives that appear in nearly every food in our supermarkets and restaurants? Take a look at this response to a question on the FDA’s “Guidance for Industry” web page:

If I submit a GRAS notice about a food substance, must I wait until I receive a response from FDA before I market that substance?

No. If one is correct in determining that the intended use of an ingredient is GRAS, use of the ingredient is not subject to any legal requirement for FDA review and approval. Your decision to submit a GRAS notice is voluntary, and FDA’s response to a GRAS notice is not an approval. You may market a substance that you determine to be GRAS for a particular use without informing FDA or, if FDA is so informed, while FDA is reviewing that information (62 Fed. Reg. 18951; April 17, 1997).

In other words, a company can determine via its own study that an ingredient is safe to use in foods marketed and sold in the United States. It’s a matter of innocent until proven guilty: a substance is allowed in our foods until somewhere down the line either the FDA or independent researchers determine that it is indeed harmful and should be removed from the shelves. This is what happened with the now-infamous trans fatty acids that replaced butter and palm oil (saturated fats) for so many decades. Researchers eventually realized that hydrogenated vegetable oils (which are typically corn oils) behave in harmful ways in the human body and now recommend against ingesting any trans fats at all. Can’t believe it’s not butter? Can’t believe it was never even studied before being marketed to millions of Americans as a healthy alternative to what turns out to be a perfectly healthy food (real butter)!

These are all reasons why I only purchase whole, unadulterated foods to feed my family. Fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, rice, and pasture-raised meat and eggs are staples on our household. And we eat lots of butter–the real stuff. I simply don’t trust the food industry to make decisions about the healthfulness of what goes into our bodies so I don’t buy foods produced by it. I don’t like to live in the kitchen, either, so I look for foods that are easy to cook in large quantities, and that are just plain easy to cook! With time, I’ll populate my recipes category with meals and snacks that are easy for even the working parent to enjoy so that more Americans can move away from their corn-based processed food diets to more traditional, wholesome diets based on a variety of age-old alternatives.