Lekha Karunanithi: Which to Choose, Conventional or Organic Meat/Dairy?

Meat and dairy products in grocery stores have pretty packages claming to be "Free-range" or "Natural" or "No-added hormones". What do these phrases mean to our health?

AS A SEQUEL to my previous post on organic vs non-organic produce, today's
post is about the differences between free-range and conventionally farmed
animals, their products and why it matters to us.

Meat and dairy constitute a significant proportion of the meals most of us consume. They have high nutritional value and are sources of some of the most important nutrients, such as calcium, iron,  protein etc. But we keep hearing about "free-range Chicken," "natural beef" or "no added growth hormones." What do these phrases that we see in decorated packages in the grocery store actually mean? Lets try and figure this out, shall we?

USDA certifies livestock as organic if the producers meet animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed and provided animals with access to the outdoors. It is important to note here that the criteria for USDA's organic certification is in regard to the methods and practices used to produce animal products and is not based on food or the nutritional quality of the final product.

In the conventional farming method, animals could be fed meat by-products or standard feed with supplements to promote rapid weight gain. They are often given growth hormones, antibiotics and other medications to spur growth, increase milk yield and prevent diseases. The hormones used are synthetic versions of the hormones that the cattle naturally produce. They are mostly confined to a shed or other closed spaces. They do not have a lot of space to move around or graze naturally.

Studies across the US have shown that milk from cattle allowed to graze naturally was found to have a beneficial fatty acid profile (they had higher levels of  'good fat' and lower levels of 'not so-good fat' ) in comparison to milk from conventionally farmed cattle.

In organic farming practices, the animals are given organic feed and are allowed access to outdoors. Preventive measures such as rational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing are practiced to minimize diseases. The farmers are also
prohibited from using growth enhancers, antibiotics or slaughter by-products in
the feed.

SOME STUDIES in the past have shown that the hormones used to spur growth or increase milk production in cattle have the potential to indirectly affect human health, since traces of hormonal residues are still in found in the meat and dairy products that we consume. There is a general thinking that these hormone residues upset the hormone balance in our bodies, especially in pre-pubertal children and are thus responsible for early onset of puberty. But human studies have not clearly demonstrated these adverse effects. 

In 2008, FDA reported that it did not find any significant differences in amounts of hormones in conventional and 'no hormone added' products. FDA has established safe levels of hormonal residues in meat - levels that will not affect humans. FDA also prohibits use of steroid hormones for growth purposes in dairy cattle, pigs and poultry. With all these regulations in place, FDA and USDA take the stance that the amount of hormone residues found in meat is negligible and there is nothing to worry about.

A study recently by Stanford University scientists found that organic and non-organic meat and animal produce did not have any significant difference in nutritional value, but that organic chicken and pork were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That said, we do have to keep in mind that bacteria, antibiotic-resistant or otherwise, is killed by cooking to appropriate temperatures (Refer Temperature range  to determine how to ensure safe killing of pathogens in animal products).

Looking at the whole picture, the consensus seems to be the same as with organic and non-organic produce - there is no reason to opt for organic or free-range meat/dairy/eggs/poultry for nutritional reasons. However the lack of ideal
research on the effects of growth hormones on humans leads one side to ask, "Why worry when there is no scientific evidence?" and the other side to ask, "Why take the chance and use them at all?" It is really a matter of personal reference.
Think about which side you are on and make your choices accordingly.


Srilekha Karunanithi of Kirkland is a Master's student in Nutritional Sciences at University of Washington who is training to become a Registered Dietitian. Her master’s program focuses on the influences of diet on health and how positive dietary changes help in the control and prevention of many diseases.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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