Regardless of where you are on your holistic health journey, understanding how to source quality protein and why it’s so important is a cornerstone to building foundational health. 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 today’s article, I am going to break down the most common labels you’ll find on animal protein and provide helpful resources to 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.
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.
Now let’s jump to the terms you do want to look for on a label! As a note, many of these terms unfortunately remain unregulated or loosely defined. 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.
Pasture-raised (aka 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 standard1.
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% Grass Fed” 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(2).
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(3).
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(4).
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(5).
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, 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, fewer “bad” fats, richer in antioxidants including vitamins E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, and no added hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs, compared to their factory-farmed counterparts6. 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-mana