Food Tips

Is It Ever OK To Buy Conventional Meat? The Answer Will Surprise You

grass fed beef

STEPHANIE ECKELKAMP

You’ve heard us sing the praises of grass-fed and pasture-raised meat in the past. In fact, there’s really no debating that it’s better for you and the environment than conventional meat sourced from grain-fed animals that probably received hormones and antibiotics, and lived the majority of their lives in crowded factory farms.

But the truth is—at least for me, and many well-intentioned consumers—the quality of meat we buy can vary from week to week depending on our budget. When I’m feeling flush, bring on the farmers’ market grass-fed rib-eye; when money’s tight, well, bring on the $5 rotisserie chicken.

As someone who writes about nutrition for a living, my bi-polar meat purchasing tendencies are the source of much internal debate and distress, and I’ve often wondered if there’s some sort of magic formula I should be following: When I’m feeling broke and I need to skimp somewhere, are there certain types or cuts of meat that are more OK to buy as conventional? And are there others I should always buy grass-fed or not at all?

In need of some guidance, I asked the experts. Here’s what they had to say:

You should always try to buy grass-fed or pasture-raised for…

ground beef

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOE POTATO PHOTO/GETTYIMAGES

Fatty cuts of meat. These include things like rib-eye, ground beef, skirt steak, dark meat chicken, and bacon. Why? The fat is where all those beneficial compounds (e.g. essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins) that result from noshing on green grass and spending time in the sun build up.

“Grass-fed meat has more than four times the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats of grain-fed meat,” says Ali Miller, RD, integrative dietitian and owner of Naturally Nourished. It also contains two to three times more conjugated linoleic acid, a fat that may reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and promote weight loss, and it’s higher in vitamins E and A.

But the fat is also where toxins build up when an animal is fed a high-carb grain diet that contains pesticide residue, given growth hormones and antibiotics, or is chronically stressed (being crammed into cramped pens can certainly do that). The fatty acid profile itself differs, too, with meat from grain-fed animals containing up to 10 times more pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. So that’s why you should pass on the conventionally raised filet mignon. (Here’s a guide to help you decipher all those confusing beef labels.)

You can sort of get away with buying conventional meat for…

boneless skinless chicken breast

PHOTOGRAPH BY WIKTORY/GETTYIMAGES

Leaner cuts like sirloin or boneless, skinless chicken breasts. “If you’re definitely going to by meat, but you need to skimp somewhere because your budget is limited, it should be on lean meats,” says Laura Schoenfeld, RD, holistic nutritionist at Ancestralize Me. Since the major differences between grass-fed/pasture-raised and grain-fed animals lie in the fatty acid composition, all lean muscle meat will be pretty similar, regardless of the feed.

But—and it’s a big but—this isn’t permission to only buy lean conventional meats. Why not? In terms of animal welfare and environmental sustainability, all conventional meat is pretty terrible, so if you eat it, try to at least cut back your serving size to a reasonable three ounces in a meal and get more of your protein from plant-based sources like beans, lentils, and chickpeas, says Schoenfeld.

You also shouldn’t rely too heavily on lean meats of any kind. “Solely eating low-fat meats can throw off the optimal balance of the amino acids methionine and glycine,” says Miller. “Too much methionine (found in lean muscle meat) and too little glycine (found in fattier meats and skin-on cuts) can lead to elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which may increase risk for cardiovascular disease.”

Bottom line: For fatty cuts of meat, always prioritize buying grass-fed or pasture-raised for maximum nutritional benefits. For lean cuts, conventional is okay to eat from time to time in terms of nutrition, but only buy it when you have to, and consider limiting your reliance on it by supplementing your diet with plant-based proteins.

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