Cage Free, Free Range, Pasture Raised… Here’s What the Labels Mean for Your Health and the Animal’s.

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The supermarket can be a confusing place to shop sometimes, don’t you think? For example, I often see brands touting certain characteristics on their labels as benefits, when I could swear these were things I’d put on my “avoid” list. It makes me second-guess myself, which is frustrating.

The term “cage-free” is one of those characteristics. I see that phrase in big bold letters on egg cartons and at the deli counter all the time. And, more and more, I’m seeing it printed at the bottom of restaurant menus. I mean, it sounds good, right? The chickens weren’t confined to a cage — woohoo!

But… not so fast. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I’ll walk you through the simple differences between terms like cage-free vs. grass-fed vs. pasture-raised in just a minute. But for now, my point is just that it’s easy to be fooled and it doesn’t feel good, especially when you’re trying to make choices that are healthier, as well as more ethical and sustainable.

Also read: Wild-Caught vs. Farmed Fish: Which are the Healthiest and Most Sustainable Fish to Eat?

Pasture-raised beef

Meat that is more ethical and sustainable also happens to be healthier

Even if your first priority is your health and that of your family — it’s all the same thing. It turns out that what is more ethical and sustainable is usually healthier for our bodies as well. It’s really quite practical if you think about it: Healthier animals produce healthier meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. Makes perfect sense, right?

Sure, foods that come from humanely-raised livestock typically do cost more — often quite a bit more. But the long-term price of eating protein from industrial (factory farmed) livestock is even higher. Like, cancer higher and obesity higher and chronic illness higher… You get the point.

I know a lot of my veg friends are screaming “stop eating meat” right now! But realistically speaking, that’s not everyone’s path. My recommendation is to simply eat less meat so that when you do, you can afford to make the healthiest choice possible… which also happens to be the most humane and eco-friendly. Just sayin’.

So how do you find the highest quality protein from humanely-raised livestock? Let’s find out.

In this article

Pasture-raised chickens

Healthier livestock produce healthier food

Ideally, you want to choose meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy from animals who were raised as naturally as possible. At the very least this means they were not fed growth hormones or antibiotics, both of which have serious health implications for the people (and pets) who eat them.

You also want the animals to have roamed freely, as opposed to sitting (or standing) idle in a cage or tight quarters their entire lives. Beyond the obvious humane reasons, it is unhealthy for animals to live in tight, closed-in quarters because if one animal gets sick, they all get sick. And sick or not, the animal goes to market and ends up on your plate.

Finally, you want the animals to have been fed the diet that nature intended for them. A natural diet means the animals consume the key nutrients their bodies need and are more likely to maintain a healthy immune system.

The labels that describe these simple characteristics can get a little confusing, so here’s the low-down.

Why cage-free eggs & poultry are NOT a compelling choice

Cage-free (poultry & eggs) is a popular marketing label that doesn’t mean much. While it is a very slight step up from the living conditions of most industrially-raised animals (and I mean a very slight step up), the poultry is not as “free” as this label might imply. The chickens and turkeys may not live in cages, but that’s the only freedom they typically have.

To clarify, the term “cage-free” offers no indication of how much space the bird had to move around and whether they had access to the outdoors. And as it turns out, it is typically the case that they have next to no room to move whatsoever and typically do not have the ability to go outside. Their living conditions tend to be just as cramped as they would be in a ‘regular’ CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)… just without the closed cages.

Cage-free, free-range hens

Public domain [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Free-range-hens.jpg]

Slightly better (but still not great)

Free-range (poultry & eggs) means the animal did have continuous access to the outdoors. There was a door and it was open. However, that does not mean they actually went outside or, if they did, that the pasture could support any sort of natural grazing.

Grass-fed (beef, lamb, goat) only means that the animal ate grass or hay. It does not mean they ate it while grazing a green pasture. Unless the label also says “pasture-fed”, the animal may have spent most of its time indoors, possibly in cramped living conditions, eating dry, brown grass that was tossed onto the dirt or concrete floor.

Pasture-fed (or “pastured”) means the animals did eat grass outdoors but were also fed grain. “Pasture-fed” (on its own) does not guarantee healthy living conditions. The term “pasture-raised” is not the same as “pasture-fed”. We talk about pasture-raised in the below section called “best choice”).

We’re getting closer

USDA certified organicThe organic label means the animals were fed 100% organic food and were never treated with hormones or antibiotics. So far, so good! The animal may still have been fed grain, but they would have at least been organic grains. It also means that the animal also enjoyed healthier living conditions.

The organic certification is expensive, so farmers may raise their animals to organic (or mostly organic) standards, but not pay for the certification. If you buy your meat from your local farmer’s market, it’s easy to ask how the animals were raised. If the food does not carry the organic certification (and you’re at the store vs. the farmer’s market, where you can’t ask the farmer), look for all these words on the label: pasture-fed + grass-fed + hormone-free + antibiotic-free.

Best choice

Pasture-raised animals would have been raised on pasture their entire lives. They would have eaten food provided to them by nature and could forage for worms, bugs or grass, as their natural instincts dictate. The animals would have access to shelter during bad weather, but would otherwise have been kept outdoors.

You’ll often see the terms hormone-free, antibiotic-free and/or organic in addition to pasture-raised on the label — or the menu.

Certified Humane Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane means the animals were raised according to strict standards. These certifications cover the animals’ diet, living conditions, slaughter conditions and more. These ethics help to ensure healthier food.

In summary, the healthiest-raised animals would be: Pasture-raised + Organic + Certified Humane (or Animal Welfare Approved).

Pasture-raised pigs

Good To Know

  • Unfortunately, the diet of most industrial farm animals (including farmed fish, believe it or not) consists mainly of genetically modified corn, soy and other foods their bodies cannot easily digest. The digestive infections and disease that result from this unnatural diet may end up in the foods these animals produce.
  • Pork and poultry are never labeled “grass-fed” because pigs and poultry do need some grain in their diet.
  • Buying directly from a farmer’s market or CSA means you can ask questions directly from the farmer and ensure the farm meets your personal standards for health and safety.
  • Never feel embarrassed to ask your waiter or chef where their food comes from or how it was raised. These have become popular questions and most waiters are accustomed to hearing them.
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