Regardless of where you are on your health journey, understanding how to source quality protein and why it’s so important is a cornerstone to building foundational health for you and your family. Before we jump in, let me validate something for you — whether you’re new to holistic health or a seasoned wellness professional — label reading is overwhelming. There are so many claims out there and it’s challenging to distinguish real from fake.
In this article, I am going to break down the most common labels you’ll find on animal protein and provide helpful resources for purchasing the best quality available.
In an attempt to simplify an overwhelming and complicated category, I’m breaking down only a handful of labels in this article, the ones that’ll guide you best in finding the highest quality protein available.
If you’re interested in a comprehensive list, head over to A Greener World to download their free guide Food Labels Exposed: A definitive guide to common food label terms and claims.
Let’s also start by clearing up any misconception that meat or animal protein is not a part of a healthy diet. It absolutely is! In fact, it contains many crucial vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health, fertility, pregnancy health, and postpartum recovery. To review all the reasons to eat meat and animal protein, check out my other article here on why meat is good for you, your motherhood journey, and the planet.
What the Labels Mean
Let’s begin by identifying what we should avoid when it comes to animal protein: conventionally farmed animal products. As a note, you will will never see the word labeled “conventional” or “conventionally farmed” on a label, but if there is no label denoting quality or terms like pasture-raised, free-range, or grass-fed, you can be assured that it falls under the conventionally farmed category.
Conventional: The term conventional usually refers to standard agricultural practices that are widespread in the industry. It can include the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, feedlots, confinement systems, routine use of antibiotics, added hormones, and other chemical approaches and routine interventions. The vast majority of conventional farming uses genetically modified (GMO) supplemental feed, like corn and soy.
Free-range: This label is typically notated on poultry and eggs, claiming that the animal had access to the outdoors. However, “outdoor access” is loosely defined and varies greatly from facility to facility. This claim alone does not assure any high-welfare or environmental management practice.
Cage-free: The cage-free claim is widely used on poultry meat packaging. However, this claim is highly misleading, as meat birds are never raised in cages—no matter how intensive the system is. Poultry raised for meat under this label claim are inevitably confined indoors in enclosed barns along with tens of thousands of other birds
Pasture-raised (or pastured): A “pasture-raised” claim on meat, poultry, dairy, or egg labels means that the animals were raised for at least some portion of their lives on pasture or with access to a pasture, not continually confined indoors. Raising animals on pasture is not the industry standard.
Grass-fed: These claims require that the animals only eat the diet claimed (grass) for the lifetime of the animal. With “Grass-Fed” or “100% GrassFed” their diet must be derived solely from forage, and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season until slaughter.
Organic: In general, organic production limits the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other inputs. However, it does not strictly define production practices related to space per animal or outdoor access requirements that can have significant welfare implications for animals — for example, confinement feedlot areas are permitted to fatten organic beef cattle. And while slaughter plants taking organic livestock are audited for certain aspects, such as the type of cleaning products used, they are not audited for welfare practices.
Ideally, you’ll find a local farmer that can provide you with their exact farming approach. However, for the times you do need to shop in your local supermarket, make sure you find one of these listed on the package.
Is Pasture-Raised Better For Your Health?
At this point, you may be wondering what the actual difference is when it comes to nutrient-density. Is pasture-raised, grass-fed healthier than grain-fed, factory-farmed? The answer is yes. Pastured animals are significantly better for your health (and the planet).
Pasture-raised animals that can roam outdoors and eat their natural diet are significantly more nutrient-dense. A few of their benefits include more “good” fats (Omega-3s), fewer Omega-6s, richer in antioxidants including vitamins E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, and no added hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs, compared to their factory-farmed counterparts. If you’re interested in learning more about the health and environmental benefits of grass-fed, pastured animals, Eat Wild is an incredible resource with linked studies.
The question remains, where can you find such high-quality protein? Ideally, as aforementioned, you’ll find a local farm that raises its animals on pasture with a strong focus on their quality of life. Here are three excellent resources for finding holistically-managed farms with high-quality pastured animals near you:
If you’re shopping at a supermarket, be sure to look for the qualifying labels listed above.
Walmart and other “budget” grocers are listening to consumer demand and adding more grass fed options and grass-fed, organic options as well. You can probably check your local grocers online and compare prices to find the best in town. Whole Foods also has a helpful rating system with transparent claims on the conditions in which the animals were raised, click here to learn more.
The bottom line: protein is a macronutrient that is essential for our health and animal proteins happen to be a complete and incredible source. Keep the focus on nourishing your body with the highest quality protein available — for your health, the animals, and our beautiful planet.