July 17, 2019

Grass-fed vs. Organic Meat: What’s the Difference?

What you buy can affect your health, and the environment too

Cow eating grass in pasture

You may notice different labels — and prices — in the meat department of the grocery store. Grass-fed and organic items are frequently praised for being more “healthy,” but what exactly is the difference?


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You are what you eat

First, it is important to consider the food and treatment of the cattle that you are eventually consuming. Animals from factory farms are not only living in poor conditions, but are also more prone to diseases spread from feed pumped with antibiotics to aid in increase of fat on the body. In addition, many of these farms contribute to climate change with use of fertilizers and chemicals that pollute both the land and water sources.

“The alternative to factory-farm meat — grass-fed meat — is not just better for the environment and better for the animals, but better for you, too,” Functional Medicine Director Mark Hyman, MD, weighs in.

Grass-fed meat is so nutritionally superior to factory-farmed meat that it is practically a different food.

In a 2015 study conducted by Consumer Reports comparing 300 conventional and grass-fed meat samples, researchers discovered “18% of the conventional beef samples were contaminated with superbugs — the hazardous bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics — compared with just 6% of grass-fed beef samples, and 9% of samples that were organic or raised without antibiotics.”


The best choice: Grass-fed

Look for labels on meats that are certified by the American Grassfed Association (AGA). This ensures:

  • Diet: All certified animals are only raised in open grass pastures.
  • Treatment: Animals are free to graze, rather than being confined in cramped living spaces.
  • Antibiotics and hormones: All AGA-certified meats are guaranteed antibiotic and growth hormone free.
  • Origin: All animals are born and raised on family farms in the United States.

When you can’t choose grass-fed, choose organic

The second best option to AGA is meat certified organic by the USDA. Though USDA standards are lesser than AGA, they are much higher than those set for conventional meat, with prices comparable to conventional meat. When you see the USDA label, you are promised:

  • Diet: Organic beef is raised on a blended diet of grain and corn, and grazing on grass.
  • Treatment: USDA standards require cattle to live in a way that “accommodates their natural behaviors,” including not being confined in spaces for long periods of time.
  • Antibiotics and hormones: Animals are not subjected to dangerous antibiotics and chemicals.
  • GMOs: In order for meat to be certified organic, animals are fed 100% organic feed and forage, avoiding all GMOs and synthetic ingredients.

At the end of the day …

If you are in search for meat that is humanely produced and sustainable, look for these labels on packaging:

  • Animal Welfare Approved.
  • Certified Humane.
  • Global Animal Partnership.
  • Food Alliance Certified.
  • American Grassfed Association.
  • USDA Organic.

This article is adapted from Dr. Hyman’s book “What the Heck Should I Eat?” (© 2018, Hyman Enterprises, LLC)

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