Choosing the best food to eat for your health and the environment can be daunting and, at times, confusing. Start with this cheat sheet to learn about some of the basic problems facing our food system and how they may affect our health, as well as the best choices in each category and why.
Choose organic and free-range chicken and turkey.
Chickens and turkeys raised on factory farms are given feed consisting of genetically modified corn, soy, and/or wheat that is potentially treated with pesticides or herbicides or fertilized with chemical or synthetic products. In addition, chickens and turkeys may be given hormones, antibiotics, and steroids. As Michael Pollan explains in In Defense of Food, you aren’t just what you eat, “You are what you eat eats.” So those ingredients are passed on to you, along with the hormones, antibiotics, and steroids. These harmful chemicals may negatively impact your health, making the extra cost of organic well worth the tradeoff.
On an organic farm, the law stipulates, among many other things, that organic chicken and turkeys are to be fed organic feed (without chemicals like hormones, antibiotics, or steroids) and have access to the outdoors. This is a big improvement over conventional methods.
That said, unfortunately, “access to the outdoors” is not the same as having ensured that the chickens and turkeys spend time outdoors. In an effort to extend and improve the lives of chickens, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the free-range label. To be labeled free-range, the USDA stipulates that these chickens and turkeys must spend 51 percent of their lives outdoors. As such, these chicken and turkeys are given the freedom to roam and live in accordance with nature.
In summary, by choosing organic and free-range chicken and turkey, you are saving yourself from ingesting the hormones, antibiotics, and steroids given to chickens and turkeys raised on factory farms and improving the welfare of the animal. Plus, the meat of factory-raised chickens and turkeys is blander due to their feed, and conversely, organic and free-range chicken and turkey have a richer, more satisfying taste.
Choose organic, free-range eggs.
The same reasoning behind choosing organic, free-range chicken goes for choosing organic, free-range eggs.
An organic egg signifies that the farm raising the chickens has followed strict U.S. organic guidelines. Organic eggs can only be labeled as such if they come from chickens raised on an organic farm.
Further, an egg can only be labeled free-range if the farm follows the USDA stipulations for raising free-range chickens.
The benefits to eating chicken and turkey that is both organic and free-range carry over to the benefits of eating organic and free-range eggs. Also, the quality of fat found in these eggs may be higher—there is a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids in organic and free-range eggs. Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain function and may also help lower blood cholesterol levels and protect us from heart disease, as well as help reduce the symptoms of arthritis, joint problems, and some skin diseases. For more information on omega-3s, click here. Finally, organic and free-range eggs simply taste better due to the healthier and more natural diet of the chicken.
Choose grass-fed, organic beef.
Cows raised on factory farms are given processed feed of grains and fillers. This type of feed, along with hormones, exponentially accelerates their growth. Factory-farm-raised cows reach their market weight twice as quickly as cows raised on an organic farm. Further, because most factory farms raise their animals in unsanitary conditions, cows are given antibiotics to keep them healthy. These hormones and antibiotics are then passed onto you.
Organic beef comes from cows raised on an organic farm. No fertilizers or pesticides have been used on the farm land, and no fertilizers or pesticides can be used in their feed. Organic feed, however, can include grain. Grain is known to disrupt a cow’s natural digestive function, so in terms of animal welfare, it is not the best choice. Organic cows are not given growth-enhancing hormones or antibiotics, and they must be given access to the outdoors. Again, the statement “access to the outdoors” is not equivalent to allowing the animal freedom to roam and feed off the land.
Grass-fed beef comes from cows exclusively fed grass, hay, and forage. No grains are included in their diet. This is the natural diet of the cow, and you benefit from this natural diet as well. Grass-fed beef may have less total fat, higher omega-3 fatty acids, and a boost of antioxidant vitamins, including vitamin E.
Keep in mind, grass-fed does not equal organic. Though grass-fed cows are fed grass, hay, and forage to meet the grass-fed standard, they may have also been given hormones or antibiotics. Therefore, seek out organic and grass-fed for lower fat and calories and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. You’ll be happy to know that you can taste a difference, too.
Choose pork with the label Certified Humane Raised and Handled.
The pork industry is poorly regulated, perhaps the most poorly regulated of all the food industries. And, like the factory farm cattle industry, it is riddled with practices that may compromise our health.
Pigs are fed hormones to increase their weight and antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. Again, like in the case of cows given the same regimen, these hormones and antibiotics are passed down to you when you eat the meat.
Environmentally, it’s important to note that pigs produce an enormous amount of waste. To put it in perspective, the pigs of North Carolina (10 million in all) produce as much waste as 100 million people. This waste, laced with hormones and antibiotics, is dumped into the land and the water, degrading the land and polluting the water supply. The gases and particles from the manure also affects the health of those near the farms, causing symptoms such as difficulty breathing, sore throat, nausea, eye irritation, and high blood pressure.
Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) is the leading nonprofit certification organization dedicating to “improving the lives of farm animals from birth through slaughter.” This group established the standard “Certified Humane Raised and Handled.” By choosing pork with this label, you can be assured the pigs were raised on a farm committed to more responsible farming practices. This includes giving animals the freedom to do what comes naturally (without being confined to stalls) and being fed a diet of “quality feed, without animal by-product, antibiotics or growth hormones.”
By choosing pork that is labeled Certified Humane Raised and Handled, you are not only supporting the welfare of the animals, but are also choosing meat that is the best for your health and the environment.
Choose local and health-friendly seafood.
The demand for seafood has increased so significantly over the past 20 years that our oceans are being overfished to meet the demands. In addition, our waters continue to be compromised by chemicals and toxins. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for the seafood industry to meet our demands for quality seafood.
The specific chemicals and toxins in our waters that may affect our fish include dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, and radiation. These chemicals and toxins compromise the health of the fish we eat, and consequently, our health.
In light of this information, farming fish may seem like the more sustainable and healthy option. However, conventional farms feed their fish GMO pellets of corn and soy, and while not allowed in the US, farmed fish from abroad (by 2030, China will produce over 30 percent of the world’s fish) are given high levels of antibiotics. The same issues that plague the cattle and pork industry also plague the fishing industry, and the feed and antibiotics are passed down to those who eat the fish, potentially compromising our health.
So, as you can see, making a blanket statement on the best fish to choose for your health and the environment is complicated. To eat the most health-supportive and environmentally sound fish means choosing the fish depending on where it is caught (if wild) and how it is raised (if raised on a farm). Download the app “Ocean Watch,” created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to keep it all straight.