You are what you eat - and the same goes for the animals whose meat, milk and eggs you put in your mouth. We should not only be concerned about what we eat, but what our food eats as well.
Generally speaking, our food animals are not eating what they were naturally meant to eat. As more animals are raised by the thousands and packed into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), their natural diets of roots and grasses, grubs and bugs has been replaced by a standard factory farm fare of grains, soybeans, King Corn and a sundry array of advanced pharmaceutical products.
But sound science has emerged to demonstrate that eating meat, milk and eggs from grass-fed and pastured animals will provide your body with more health-enhancing, disease fighting materials than industrial-grade CAFO-raised protein.
A new scientific review, a compendium of grass-fed beef benefits just published in Nutrition Journal, concludes that, "Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-only diets can significantly alter the fatty acid composition and improve the overall antioxidant content of beef."
This altered fatty acid composition replaces more of the "bad fats" of grain-fed beef with the "good fats" found in grass-fed protein.
In fact, more and more research is showing that cattle, pigs and poultry raised on their natural pasture and grass-based diets yield meat that is lower in total fat and calories, and food that is higher in good fats like Omega 3's, more concentrated with antioxidants such as vitamins E, C and beta-carotene, and with increased levels of other disease-fighting substances.
A good place to keep up with all the pasture-fed research is at the Eat Wild website run by Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist and New York Times best-selling writer.
"If you eat a typical amount of beef (66.5 pounds a year), switching to lean grass-fed beef will save you 17,733 calories a year," Robinson writes (though how I would go about affording the price difference, I do not know). "If everything else in your diet remains constant, you'll lose about six pounds a year," she adds, so maybe the price is worth it.
Though it has less total fat, grass-fed meat has 2-4 times more of the health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids than CAFO-raised meat.
Pasture-raised animals also produce 3-5 times greater amounts of another good fat called "conjugated lineolic acid (CLA), which Robinsons writes, "may be one of our most potent defenses against cancer:
In laboratory animals, a very small percentage of CLA--a mere 0.1 percent of total calories--greatly reduced tumor growth. There is new evidence that CLA may also reduce cancer risk in humans. In a Finnish study, women who had the highest levels of CLA in their diet, had a 60 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest levels. Switching from grain-fed to grass-fed meat and dairy products places women in this lowest risk category.
Researcher Tilak Dhiman from Utah State University estimates that you may be able to lower your risk of cancer simply by eating the following grassfed products each day: one glass of whole milk, one ounce of cheese, and one serving of meat. You would have to eat five times that amount of grain-fed meat and dairy products to get the same level of protection.
Proponents of modern feedlot meats will argue that grain fed meat can provide equal levels of omega-3s, as long as consumers eat fattier cuts of their products. But that means you have to eat more of the bad fats to get more of the good fats, not exactly a win-win situation.
Of course, there are other reasons why you might opt for, say, grass-fed dairy over CAFO-raised milk. I find pastured milk to taste sweeter and more flavorful, but that is not why I buy it. I buy it to support a form of traditional agriculture which, in my view, still respects the animals, the land and the people who live near the dairy.
When writing my recent book, Animal Factory, I was unaware of the nutritional advantages of grass-fed protein until after I finished writing it. But I knew that mega-dairies were replacing small, traditional pasture operations in places like the Yakima Valley of Washington State. And that was enough for me to switch.
As I wrote:
Over time, many more of these "milk factories" began appearing in the dry, wide-open Valley. There was no mistaking these newcomers. The old-fashioned dairies had pastured their cows on emerald fields of green, periodically moving the animals through well-timed rotations of meadows brimming with wild clover, alfalfa, downy ryegrass and other ingredients of a natural bovine buffet. Helen Reddout was not exactly enamored of cows, but she had always delighted at watching mothers and their calves gamboling about the green pastures of their valley home. She figured they were doing whatever it is that cows do, at peace in their world. The pastured animals seemed healthy and robust, walking erect with straight spines and heads held high. To Helen, they seemed happy.
But the new milk factories were nothing like that. Instead, they jammed thousands of manure-smeared animals onto strictly confined tracts of land. Whatever grass that had sprouted in these "feeding pens" was quickly shredded under constant hoof-pounding, leaving behind open stretches of dirt, urine and feces. During the arid summers, dry lots bake and crumble under the blazing sun. Cows and heifers kick up clouds of dust laden with ground feces and pathogens. Sometimes on windy days, the disgusting brown fog grew so thick that drivers flipped on their headlights at noon. The winter was even worse. Rain and melting snow mixed with the crap-filled soil and left a thick coating of muck caked onto the cows' legs, bellies and udders. Helen watched these creatures, penned in by the thousands, and felt they were the very picture of animal misery.
Without access to a single blade of grass, these "new" dairy cows depended entirely on trucks that delivered a mixture of milled grains, ground soybean and fermented cornstalk called "silage." Helen knew enough from her family's dairy days that grain was no substitute for grass, which ruminants can digest and transform into protein
I learned a vital lesson: It's important to know where your food comes from and how it's produced.
Now I have learned another lesson: It's important to know what your food eats, too.
David Kirby is author of the new book Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment.
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