Free-Range, Organic, Vegetarian Fed. What does it all mean, and why does it matter?


I recently received this question through Facebook.

Reader Question: I keep getting told that so many foods are contaminated and they should be eaten rarely (ie fish only once a week, eggs) but that I’m supposed to eat more often than I am for blood sugar control! what can I eat that’s not contaminated?

Answer:  Trying to find protein sources that are uncontaminated is hard to do, but it’s doable. First, you have to understand what the myriad of marketing tools meat and fish producers use to sell their product.  There’s grass fed, grass finished, grain fed, natural, vegetarian fed, free range, free roaming, sustainable, organic, and to the average person, these terms are extremely confusing.

Let’s first look at what each of these terms mean so that when you are shopping, you can start to make better buying decisions.  I’ll also include some links to producers who sell the highest quality ingredients, and who can deliver to your door.

When you look at beef, there are several terms used to market beef.

Natural Beef:  This is exactly what you are trying to stay away from.  A cow that is fed a diet of the country’s most prolific crops, corn and soy, is not a healthy cow.  Cows are meant to graze on grass – not to be eating loads of genetically modified corn, soy, and potato by-products, the latter of which fattens the cow and makes it ready for market more quickly than would a grass fed cow.  At Whole Foods, half of the beef in the meat counter is natural beef.  While the cow is fed grass for a portion of their life, it is finished with a long period of eating grain and other non desirable feed.

Grass Fed:  This is a step above the natural beef.  Cows graze on grass for most of their life.  The issue, however, is that producers are allowed to finish the cows with a grain based diet for 60-120 days, which eradicates most of the health benefits that would come from a grass fed diet.  That is not to say all produces do this, but to be cautious, ask questions, and do your research.

Grass Finished:  When buying beef, this is your best choice.  The beef is fed a diet of grass for the entirety of their lives, and end up being more nutritious than the grain fed alternative.  The beef is higher in omega 3’s, vitamin A, D, E, and C content, and beta-carotene.

Organic: Don’t mistake organic beef for grass fed.  Organic just means the feed is organic, it doesn’t mean the feed is grass.

As for chicken and eggs, this gets even more confusing.  The same labels apply to both.  Note that healthy chickens aren’t supposed to be eating corn and soy.  Chickens are supposed to eat a variety of grain, veggie treats, oyster shells, bugs, etc.  When the chickens aren’t fed properly, they get sick.  Eating a sick chicken is not healthy.

Free-Range:  Free range means nothing more than the chickens have been able to roam in the pastures.  Hormone and antibiotic free is nice, and certainly better than hormone and antibiotic infested chicken, but you still have to worry about what the chicken is eating.

Free-Roaming:  Free roaming means the chickens were allowed to roam in their establishment, but not likely outside.  The chickens are likely fed non-organic corn and soy.

Free-Range, Vegetarian Fed: This means the chickens have been roaming, and they’re fed a diet of corn and soy.  Since it’s not organic, there’s a huge likeliness that the soy and corn are genetically modified, which isn’t a good thing.

Free-Range, Organic:  Again, this means the chickens have been roaming.  They’re likely fed a diet of corn and soy as well, but at least this is organic.

Omega 3:  This means the chickens were fed supplemental flax seed.  This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, there’s no label for the chickens that are fed the right foods, bred in the right environment, and treated the right way.  They’re going to be Free-Range, and Organic.  But if you want to be sure, you’ll need to ask the farmer at the farmer’s market what he feeds his chickens, and you can bet the eggs will be more expensive, because feeding chickens this way is more expensive.  Marin Sun Farms has excellent eggs, if you can get them.  And I recommend checking out your local Whole Foods to see which brand is most expensive, and doing a google search to see what practices the farm uses.  This is the only way to ensure you’ll get the best of the best.

For an in depth look at fish, read this article by Chris Kresser, who has an amazing body of knowledge on this subject and has a well researched, well thought out approach to health.

Eating the healthiest sources of uncontaminated protein is expensive.  But I think it is worth seeking out.  The flavor is better, you feel better eating it, and you support more ecological farming methods.

Here are some excellent sources.  Farmer’s market is always the first choice.

This Bay Area CSA takes orders for farm fresh local meat and dairy, and if you can find the time or live near one of their location, you can pick up a box every week.

This website is a compilation of the farmers that have sustainable and healthy practices in California.

If you want grass beef beef delivered to your door.

If you want sustainable, extremely fresh fish delivered to your door.


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