When it comes to buying healthy food, the most common questions I get from my patients concern meat labels. I agree that they can be mysterious and even misleading, so let me help clear things up.
"Grass-fed meat" means exactly that: meat from animals that ate grass. It applies to ruminant animals like cows, buffalo, goats, and sheep. According to the USDA:
"Grass and/or forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall 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."
"Pastured" or "pasture-raised" meats come from animals that foraged for their food but ate more than grass and green plants.
It applies to animals that eat both plant and animal matter, omnivores like chickens and pigs.
"Pasture-raised" doesn't have a legal definition but when you buy these products at the farmer's market from the people who raised the animals, they're usually happy to tell you how they did it.
Labels that read "vegetarian-fed" assure consumers that the animals were not fed other animals.
"Vegetarian-fed" meats and eggs come from grain-fed animals.
(If they'd had the chance to snack on bugs and worms, they wouldn't be vegetarian.) Remember that certain animals, like chickens and pigs, are not supposed to be vegetarian.
Labels that read "free range" or "free roaming" only mean that animals had access to the outside. It doesn't mean that they were frolicking on a farm, foraging for their food, or that they ever ate green-leafy plants. These animals usually eat grain.
"Grain finished" meat comes from animals raised on grass but fattened with grain.
The next best thing to grass-fed or pasture-raised animals products are those high in omega-3 fats. Studies show that giving animals fish or algae extracts, which are high in omegs-3s, significantly enriches the concentration of DHA in their meat and eggs. A French study found increases that were two-fold in beef, six-fold in eggs, seven-fold in chicken, and twenty-fold in salmon (Bourre 2005).
The label "organic" means that the meat was produced without exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, synthetic fertilizer, genetically engineered ingredients, or irradiation.
Organic meats and eggs come from animals fed organic grains.
It's true that organic grains are better than pesticide-treated grains, but the bottom line is that they're still grains. Organic meat is a step up from non-organic meat, but it's not as good as grass-fed meat.
The label "natural" gives no information about the diet of the animal at all. It just means that the meat doesn't contain any artificial ingredients like colors, flavors, or preservatives. The US Department of Agriculture considers all fresh meat to be "natural."