Should I Buy Organic, Grass-Fed, and Pastured Animal Products?

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Over the past several decades, questions have been raised about the health implications of industrially farmed meat, dairy, and eggs. People who follow keto or low-carb diets may be among the most concerned, as many of us rely on these foods for a large portion of our energy needs.

Naturally raised animal products have several advantages over conventionally raised ones; however, they're usually considerably more expensive. But is it necessary to select only organic, grass-fed, or pastured animal products?

In this article, I'll discuss different methods of raising animals for food, the benefits of consuming animals raised naturally, and how to make the best choices for your health and the environment while keeping costs down.

Should I Buy Organic, Grass-Fed, and Pastured Animal Products?

What Is the Difference Between Organic, Grass Fed, and Pastured?

The terms used for different types of naturally raised animal products can be confusing. Although there is some overlap, there are also some important distinctions between them. For instance, not all livestock raised on grass is certified organic, and not all organic meat and dairy products come from animals that were raised solely on pasture. Moreover, standards vary from country to country.

Here are the general criteria for each classification, per the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) when applicable:

Naturally Raised

  • Animals do not receive growth-promoting hormones, antibiotics, or by-products of other animals
  • Packaged meat and dairy contain no artificial colors, additives or preservatives

Certified Organic

  • Animals are fed only certified organic feed (grass and/or grains)
  • Animals are allowed year-round access to the outdoors except under certain conditions, such as bad weather
  • Animals do not receive growth-promoting hormones, antibiotics, or by-products of other animals. Vaccinations are allowed.

Grass Fed

Note: The USDA no longer certifies or qualifies meat as grass fed. This is handled by independent associations, such as American Grassfed and others.

  • Animals consume mainly grass from pasture but may receive substitutes like alfalfa during the winter months in some areas.
  • Animals aren't treated with hormones and are only given antibiotics in rare cases of bacterial illness.
  • Animals are typically raised under conditions identical to organic but are not “certified organic” due to the expense of obtaining this certification.
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For eggs, different terms and criteria are used

  • Free range: Hens are allowed access to the outdoors, although the amount of time and space allotted isn't defined, nor are the conditions (concrete vs. grass vs. dirt). Additionally, type of feed isn't specified.
  • Cage free: Hens are raised indoors in a henhouse and may be allowed to roam inside, but without access to the outdoors. Again, type of feed isn't specified.
  • Pastured: Hens are allowed to roam in pastures to hunt and peck for food during the day. At night the hens stay in a hen house, where they roost and lay eggs.

Should I Buy Organic, Grass-Fed, and Pastured Animal Products?

Concerns About Conventionally Raised Animal Products

There are several reasons people are increasingly turning away from industrially raised meat, dairy, and eggs.

Antibiotic Residues

Cows, chickens, and other animals raised on industrial farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are typically given antibiotics on a routine basis in order to prevent bacterial infections and increase their growth.

However, chronic administration of antibiotics leads to several problems among livestock that may be transferred to humans, including antibiotic resistance and potentially harmful changes in gut bacteria ( 1,  2).

Although cooking meat and chicken reduces some of the antibiotic residues, it doesn't completely eliminate them, and this is a major health concern. In 2017, one group of experts proposed taxing animal products raised with antibiotics based on the practice's strong contribution to antibiotic resistance ( 3).

Growth-Promoting Hormones

In addition to antibiotics, many conventionally farmed cows, steer, and other livestock in the US and some other countries are given steroid hormones that cause them to grow larger within a shorter period of time. These include estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and other hormones, many of which increase appetite and weight gain ( 1).

Although growth hormones are banned in the EU, they are sometimes used illegally, and some European researchers have pointed out that commercial meat is rarely tested for hormone residues ( 4).

Should I Buy Organic, Grass-Fed, and Pastured Animal Products?

Inhumane Treatment of Livestock

In CAFOs, which are sometimes referred to as “factory farms,” animals are raised in overcrowded conditions and have virtually no access to the outdoors, which many people consider inhumane.

In addition, these animals are typically fed grain, soy, and other foods that are not part of their natural diet.

Environmental Impact

Industrial farming has been widely criticized for its negative environmental effects, including irreversible changes to our ecosystem, global warming, and pollution of rivers and other water sources ( 5,  6).

Benefits of Consuming Naturally Raised Animal Products

Avoiding potential harm from antibiotic and hormone residues is a clear benefit of eating food that comes from naturally raised cows, chickens, and other livestock. What's more, these animals often produce more nutritious meat, dairy and eggs than their industrially raised counterparts, and this may translate into health benefits for humans.

Meat and Poultry

Improved Fatty Acid Profile

Several comparative studies have shown that feeding livestock their natural diet of grass and herbs results in meat with a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) ( 7,  8,  9,  10).

Omega-3 fats are considered anti-inflammatory, whereas omega-6 fats have been shown to cause inflammation when consumed in large amounts. Today, most people in Western countries consume roughly 10 times as much omega-6 as omega-3 PUFAs, although the ideal ratio is somewhere between 4:1 and 1:1.

In an analysis of 67 studies of organic vs. conventional beef, omega-3 PUFA content was 47% higher in organic meat, which researchers acknowledged was largely due to the primarily forage-based diets of the cows raised on organic farms ( 11).

Additionally, compared to grain-fed meat, grass-fed meat is higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a PUFA linked to several health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes ( 11,  10).

Higher Amounts of Vitamins A, E, and K2

Meat from grass-fed animals is typically higher in the fat-soluble vitamins A and E than meat from grain-fed livestock ( 11).

Moreover, although studies haven't compared the vitamin K2 (menaquinone) content of grass-fed vs. grain-fed meat, grass-fed meat would be expected to provide greater amounts due to the animals' conversion of vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) in grass to vitamin K2.

Greater Antioxidant Capacity

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that contains the amino acids glutamine, glycine, and cysteine. In recent years, it has received a lot of attention for reducing cancer risk by protecting cells from free radicals.

Although your body produces glutathione on its own, it can also be obtained via diet, primarily through consuming green vegetables and meat. In studies, meat from animals that forage on grass has been found to contain more glutathione than meat from grain-fed animals ( 10,  12).

Should I Buy Organic, Grass-Fed, and Pastured Animal Products?

Dairy Products

Similar to meat, dairy from organic, grass-fed animals is higher in omega-3 PUFAs and has a lower (better) omega-6:omega-3 ratio than dairy from grain-fed animals.

A 2016 meta-analysis from 71 studies found that omega 6:omega-3 ratios were 71% lower in organic milk than conventional milk. In addition, organic milk was shown to have greater CLA and vitamin E content, although it was lower in the minerals iodine and selenium ( 13). Other studies have confirmed that dairy from cows fed a grass-based diet contains far more CLA than dairy from grain-fed cows ( 14,  15).

Recently, researchers who tested 1,000 milk samples in the US over a period of three years reported that milk from grass-fed cows had omega 6:omega-3 ratios that were significantly lower than milk from conventionally raised cows. Milk from grass-fed cows was also found to have a lower omega-6:omega-3 ratio than milk from organic cows because not all of the organic cows consumed a 100% grass diet ( 15).

Eggs

Most studies have shown that organic eggs and eggs from pastured chickens have better omega-6:omega-3 ratios and higher vitamin E content than conventional eggs, due to their diets and living conditions that are more similar to their natural habitat ( 16, 17).

In one study dating back to 1974, eggs from pastured hens were found to have 50% more folic acid and 70% more B12 than eggs from hens raised in battery cages ( 18). Interestingly, in this study, omega-6:omega-3 ratios were similar among all hens. However, considering the diets and conditions of caged hens on industrial farms currently, the fatty acid ratios would likely be different compared to pastured hens if the study were repeated today.

Should I Buy Organic, Grass-Fed, and Pastured Animal Products?

Potential for Improved Human Health

Does choosing naturally raised animal products instead of those from industrially-farmed animals lead to better health in humans?

Many people have suggested that it may, and there is some research supporting this. However, one of the limitations of observational studies is that people who eat primarily organic food tend to make better food choices overall and engage in other healthy behaviors, such as refraining from smoking, exercising regularly, and staying at or near a normal weight ( 19).

On the other hand, some experimental studies suggest that consuming naturally raised animals may potentially help reduce disease risk factors by decreasing inflammation and improving other health markers.

Recently a group of researchers conducted a large review of diet intervention studies and compared health marker changes among study participants who consumed cheese, beef, eggs, and butter from animals raised under different conditions. Overall, they found higher levels of omega-3 PUFAs and CLA but lower levels of inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein in subjects who consumed foods from naturally raised animals compared to industrially farmed animals ( 19).

Decreased Environmental Burden

In addition to improving the health of our animals and potentially our own health as well, organic farming could also help protect our planet. The negative environmental effects of CAFOs ("factory farms") may be reduced by raising animals naturally on small farms that use fewer natural resources, create less air pollution, and avoid contaminating water and land with residues from antibiotics and growth hormones ( 21,  22).

Should I Buy Organic, Grass-Fed, and Pastured Animal Products?

Making Healthy Choices on a Budget

Due to the often high cost of organic animal products, consuming them exclusively isn't realistic for everyone, at least at this point. Fortunately, there are several ways to make healthier food choices. Here a few general recommendations:

  • Opt for antibiotic and hormone-free sources. If organic dairy is too expensive, make a point of purchasing conventional dairy products from cows that have not been treated with antibiotics or hormones. This should be indicated on the package.
  • Buying pastured eggs from local farmers can often be less expensive than buying these items at the store. When purchasing non-pastured eggs, select eggs from antibiotic-free chickens fed high-omega-3 diets, which should be indicated on the carton.
  • Buy a whole organic chicken and eat as many parts as you can, including the liver and perhaps other organs as well. Save the bones to make bone broth or chicken stock. Organic chicken is much less expensive than organic meat, and using as much of the animal as possible makes the best sense from both an economic and health standpoint.
  • Consider purchasing organic or grass-fed meat more often while saving money on other foods by following these guidelines for staying keto on a budget.

Take Home Message

Choosing meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from naturally raised animals is ideal when it comes to our own health, animal welfare, and protecting our planet.

However, for some people, consuming only organic, pastured, and grass-fed animal products isn't realistic due to high cost and limited availability.

Although purchasing lower-cost organic items when possible is a great practice, it's important to keep in mind that all animal foods are excellent sources of high-quality protein and provide many important vitamins and minerals, regardless of how they are raised. Consuming fresh conventional meat, eggs, and dairy will still provide you with many health benefits as part of a well-balanced keto or low-carb lifestyle.

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Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE
Registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and creator of LowCarbDietitian.com

Franziska Spritzler

Franziska Spritzler, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is a strong proponent of carbohydrate restriction for people struggling with diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and PCOS.

She follows a very-low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet for blood sugar control and has experienced many improvements in her health as a result of making this change.

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Comments (7)

What about the UK market? I see free range and organic labels in most supermarkets. but never grass fed or pasture raised. What should we look for?I know the terms mentioned in this article are used in US and also that Martina lives in UK. Any suggestions about what our options would be in the UK ? It would be very helpful.  

Reply

Hi Zoe, there are no growth hormones in beef in the UK as it's illegal in the EU, although I'm not sure what will happen after Brexit. Same applies to some types of (although not all) antibiotics. I get most of my meat (apart from chicken that they don't have) from a local farm where I know what the feeding and living conditions are like. I think finding a local farm is the best thing you can do because you can get quality meat in bulk at a fraction of the price in supermarkets. I did get an extra freezer though! I also shop at Abel & Cole (online) where they sell organic meat, fish & seafood but it's quite pricey. You could also try The Fish Society (online) as they have some really good deals. When I'm buying meat from a supermarket, I always go for outdoor reared pork, organic chicken (whole bird and use all of it even bones for broth) and organic egg.

Reply

Just so everyone is aware...
Grass fed meats can be fed soy and soy by products and still be considered grass fed. Also some alfalfa grass are genetically modified and may have been sprayed with Roundup. So grass fed may not be even close to organic depending on the scruples of the farmer...

Reply

Hi John,
Thanks for your comments. I agree that it can be difficult to verify exactly what diets are fed to livestock. Purchasing directly from trustworthy farmers or choosing certified organic sources is best. However, this may not be possible for everyone, and people can still benefit from conventionally raised beef and other meats in the context of a well-formulated ketogenic or low-carb  diet.

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Great article!

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Thanks for the article. I agree that we should strive for a good omega 6:3 ratio. However, the amount of omega 6 in a keto or pkd (Paleolithic ketogenic or carnivores diet) is already reduced so maybe we shouldn't freak out; certainly if also consuming wild fish and unharmed shellfish. As for milk and dairy, is it wise to consume such products if they are pasteurized and homogenized as opposed to raw? With the exception of butter perhaps. Also, while I am all for grass fed meat, I would like to correct a misconception about grain fed cattle. Most think that cattle is raised on grains shortly after birth. However, for the most part, cattle (for meat as opposed to dairy cows) is raised on grass and fed grains in the months nearing slaughtering as a way to cut cost and cut the duration it takes to reach desired weight. What most important is whether hormones and antibiotics used and that an issue as most fresh meats sold at supermarkets don't list the above.  

Reply

Hi Daniel,  
Thanks for your comments. You make a good point regarding omega-6:omega-3 PUFA ratios; however, some people on keto or low-carb diets do tend to eat a lot of pork (including bacon and ham) and conventionally raised beef and chicken, and most aren't carnivorous and may be consuming a lot of nuts and seeds rich in omega-6 PUFAS. I don't believe there's research showing harm from pasteurized dairy as opposed to raw dairy, but typically less processed forms of all foods are best, whether animal or plant sources. I also agree that hormone and antibiotic use in livestock is more important than the length of time the animals consume grass vs. grains.

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