What does “Grass-fed” beef or “Cage-free” chicken indicate? Are they healthier choices? Should you be purchasing these choices for your family over traditional versions of beef and chicken?
If you have found yourself pondering these questions, you are not alone! Many grocery consumers are faced with these questions every time they go grocery shopping. In the old days there was one simple option – chicken. Now the options for chicken are limitless. For poultry alone the options may include (but are not limited to) “organic”, “natural”, “no hormones”, or “free-range”.
Let’s explore what these different health claims really mean and whether they offer nutritional benefits.
- Cage-free: Regulations set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) state that “cage-free” poultry must live uncaged and have the ability to roam within the enclosed area. “Cage-free” does not indicate the hens have access to the outdoors – they are commonly raised in barns, warehouses, or other enclosed areas. Additionally they are required to have unlimited access of food and water.
- Free-range: In regards to poultry, the USDA has minimal regulations for “free-range”. The term simply signifies that the poultry have been allowed access to the outdoors, however the time period or size of outdoor space is not defined. The USDA has no regulations for “free-range” in terms of beef, pork, or other non-poultry items. These items labeled with “free-range” should be purchased with caution.
- Natural: Foods that are described as “natural” are labeled under no regulatory system. In general “natural” refers to the absence of additives. Save your money!
- Organic: The USDA has established regulatory guidelines for organic products that promote unconventional farming techniques. For example the USDA requires avoidance of chemical weedkillers, avoidance of antibiotics in animals, avoidance of growth-promoting hormones in animals, unrestricted outdoor access for animals, and that all animals must be fed certified organic grains and grasses. Recent studies agree that the nutritional content of organic food are consistent with the content of non-organic food.
- Antibiotic free: According to regulations established by the USDA meat and poultry can be labeled “antibiotic free” if documentation is provided to show the animal was raised without antibiotics.
- No hormones: Under the USDA guidelines beef may be labeled as “no hormones administered” only if growth hormones were not used to stimulate growth for the animal to grow faster. In the case of poultry federal regulation prohibit the use of hormones, therefore if the claim is used it must also include “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones”.
- Grass-fed: The USDA regulations stipulate that “grass-fed” animals must be fed grass for the duration of their life and have continuous access to pasture. This means they can not be fed grain or grain byproducts. Several recent studies have suggested grass-fed beef has better nutritional benefits than grain-fed. Such benefits include an overall lower fat content, better lipid profile, and increased precursors for antioxidants (those cancer fighting agents).
Good luck in the supermarket!