Is Organic Meat Really Healthier? 8 Meat Label Terms and What They Mean for Your Health

At times, it appears that a pocket translation is required to make sense of the myriad phrases fastened to packages of chicken, beef, hog, and other proteins at the grocery store meat counter. In a few square feet of grocery space, you’re likely to find meat labeled organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, all-natural, and a variety of other phrases. So, what do they all signify, and do any of them truly imply that the meat inside is healthier than cuts without those labels?

Meat is one of the most expensive commodities in the grocery, therefore it’s natural (or perhaps organic?) to desire answers to these inquiries. According to Statista survey data published in September 2022, the typical American family spent $11.14 on beef and $8.53 on chicken on each supermarket trip. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, chicken costs grew 14.6 percent from 2021 to 2022, while other meat prices increased 14.2 percent. Despite this, many customers continue to buy organic. Globe Newswire stated in January 2023 that the worldwide organic meat industry was expected to increase at a 7.5 percent annual pace from 2023 to 2028.

If you’re wondering which of these words is genuinely worth paying more for and where you can save money, here are eight typical meat marketing terms and what they do (and don’t) have to offer.

1. Organic certification
The National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) controls all certified organic livestock, which is denoted by a green USDA seal. According to the USDA, farms must rear animals in living settings that support their natural habits (such as grazing), give them 100 percent organic grain, and not use antibiotics or hormones. Meat cooked with other foods, such as breading or seasoning, may contain some (but not all) organic ingredients, which may be labeled separately. The USDA demands a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients for a food to be branded “organic”; only when this proportion is met can a product bear the USDA’s certified green mark.

You will undoubtedly pay more for that label seal: According to a USDA study dated April 2022, organic ground beef is 75% more expensive than conventional beef, while bacon is 187% more expensive. The question is whether it is worthwhile.

According to Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) in Washington, DC, the nutritional differences between organic and conventional beef are unlikely to have an influence on your health. In general, research does not indicate that organic beef is more nutrient-dense than conventional meat. When comparing organic beef to conventional meat, one meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition discovered negligible variations in the concentration of minerals, antioxidants, and most fatty acids. That might be why the US government’s official dietary guidelines make no distinction between organic and conventional meat.

2. No Antibiotics
This label can be found on meat, poultry, and animal products in several variations, including “raised without antibiotics.” There has long been worry that conventionally farmed animal products abuse antibiotics, leading to antibiotic resistance in people who consume those products on a regular basis.

Consumer Reports discovered that almost one-third of customers commonly buy meat, poultry, and other goods with a “no antibiotics” label in a 2019 poll of 1,000 American adults. Foods with a USDA organic label can also make this claim and are subject to more stringent inspection, but producers who want to use antibiotic-free on their goods must just submit documentation to the USDA and are not subject to inspections. This approach has come under fire after a study published in Science magazine in 2022 indicated that up to 15% of antibiotic-free cattle tested positive for antibiotics.

Organic may be the best method to ensure your diet is free of animal antibiotics. However, other specialists feel that public anxiety over antibiotics is exaggerated. According to Tamika Sims, Ph.D., senior director of food technology communications at IFIC, the FDA oversees all antibiotics administered to food-producing animals and thoroughly evaluates their safety. These medications should have left an animal’s system by the time you consume a steak. “Livestock must go through a withdrawal period after receiving antibiotics in order for the antibiotic to vacate the animal’s system before the animal goes to processing,” she explains.

3. Organic
Grass-fed refers to cattle and dairy products. (There will be no grass-fed chicken or pig because these animals do not consume grass naturally.) “Product labels such as grass-fed give us insight into how an animal was fed and cared for,” Dr. Sims explains. “This label can be used voluntarily by a producer, and according to the USDA, grass- (or forage-) fed means that grass and forage will be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.”

In terms of nutrients, some grass-fed meats may outperform grain-fed meats. (While both grass and grains are plants, grains are the edible seeds of some grasses.) “There are some differences in the nutrition profiles of animal meats that result from how, and in what regions of the world, animals are raised — most notable is the fat content, with higher levels of polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3 fatty acids typically found in grass-fed meat,” Solid explains. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), these fats have the potential to improve cardiovascular health and decrease cognitive decline, among other advantages.

Previous studies indicated that organic meat included much greater quantities of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats than conventional meat due to the fact that certified organic cattle and dairy are pasture fed.

Because many of the advantages associated to organic meats are derived from the animals’ diets (rather than other variables such as antibiotic use or the environment), purchasing grass-fed meats may be a financially viable middle ground between conventional and organic meats. A 2022 Foods research, for example, discovered that simply switching to pasture-fed beef will supply customers with considerably more healthy fatty acids.

4. Pasture-Fed
Pasture-raised meats are derived from animals that were permitted to graze freely outside and consume grasses or other nutrients that their systems are designed to digest. However, unlike certified organic, the phrase pasture-raised has no government standard — and no frequent farm inspections are required to ensure correct usage, according to the Environmental Working Group.

“While pasture-raised meats may offer potential benefits such as higher levels of beneficial nutrients, a more humane upbringing, and a lower likelihood of exposure to antibiotics and hormones,” explains Atlanta-based Jessie Hulsey, RD, LD. “When deciding whether to invest in pasture-raised meats, it is critical to consider individual priorities, health goals, and values.”

5. Organic
Natural beef and poultry, according to the USDA, contain no artificial additives or additional colors and were handled in a method that did not fundamentally change the food. Furthermore, the USDA requires “natural” statements on packaging to be qualified by a statement such as “no artificial ingredients.” If you are concerned about the negative effects of artificial substances in your meals, eating natural meats may be the best option for you. However, keep in mind that “natural” is not synonymous with “organic.” Natural meats are not subject to the same nutritional and environmental requirements as organic meats.

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6. Unrestricted
Though you may identify “free range” with hens and their eggs, any meat or poultry meal can be considered free range. According to the USDA, in order to qualify for this phase, producers must submit a description of their animals’ housing arrangements, which must include access to the outdoors for more than 51 percent of their lifetimes.

Choosing free-range meats is a good approach to protecting animal welfare, but it does not always affect the health advantages of meat.

7.Non-GMO Project Verification
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have had their DNA altered, generally to generate a product that is superior in some aspect (such as pest resistance). Some people are concerned that genetically modified food would bring health or environmental problems, which is why the Non-GMO Project has created the “Verified” seal. This non-profit organization’s accreditation certifies that a product has less than 0.9 percent genetically modified components.

When it comes to meat, though, genetic manipulation isn’t a big deal. According to the German news site Deutsche Welle, only two types of genetically modified animals have been authorized for human consumption worldwide: the GalSafe pig and the AquAdvantage fish.

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8. Humane Certification
If animal welfare is a high priority for you, check for meats branded as Certified Humane. This accreditation, issued by the NGO Humane Farm Animal Care, certifies that animals were handled humanely. Some of the standards a farm must meet to acquire this mark include access to healthful food, suitable environmental design, and respectful transport and slaughter. However, a certified humane certification has little bearing on how nutritious a specific food is to ingest.

In conclusion
Only you can determine whether various types of meat are the greatest fit for your values, health objectives, and budget. It is critical to understand what the wording on food labels means and whether or not it affects the nutritional content of the food within.


Which options are best for you also depend on how frequently and how much meat you consume, as well as the rest of your diet,” explains Sollid. In general, studies have shown that lean and less processed meats are better for overall health, regardless of whether they are organic or have any specific certifications. However, if eating food that has been reared ethically or is antibiotic-free is essential to you and worth the increased expense, you can make that choice.

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