Jade Teta & Keoni Teta
Organic foods have become the go to staple of many health conscious individuals. Organic food has special allure because it gives outside assurance that, unlike conventional foods, its processing avoids compounds and chemicals that may harm human health and the environment.
It is useful to start this article with how organic food is defined. Here is the direct definition from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA): “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”
Reading the above definition should make us all feel fairly comfortable that organic foods are indeed a good thing for our health and a big step forward in helping our environment. However, if you really want to understand whether a food is healthy or not, organic is only a small consideration. This is especially true for the organic animals you may consume. Before we get into talking about what a truly healthy organic animal is, let’s first go through a little exercise. Let’s say we took you and put you in a small prison cell with the floor, ceilings, and walls made of bars. Directly above, below and beside you there were other people as well. Since your cell is made of bars not only could you see those people, but also if one happened to use the bathroom above you, well you get the picture. Now let’s say when you were put in your cage, your hands were cut off so you could not reach out and punch the guy who just peed all over you.
What about your diet? Let’s say you lived off a constant supply of organic oatmeal raisin cookies, that’s it. If this was your life, do you think you would be healthy? Of course not. Assuming the lack of exercise and stressful conditions were not there, living off of cookies whether organic or not, is not an ideal diet for anyone. Believe it or not, the above scenario is very close to how many chickens, including organic ones, are raised in this country.
We realize the above scenario is a disturbing one to imagine, but when you think about whether the animal protein you eat is healthy or not, there is far more to consider than just what that animal is eating. The only real difference for many organic animals is that they are fed organic feed, not given antibiotics, and the growth hormone is omitted. However, oftentimes the living conditions remain the same.
What’s the Difference?
The important thing to understand about conventionally raised animals and organic processed animals is that there are some key ways they differ and some important ways they are exactly the same. An organic animal is not exposed to chemicals in their feed. In the conventional world there is no care taken to source animal feed that is free of pesticide residues, antifungal agents, and antibiotics. This is an issue because pesticides and other chemicals are what are known as lipophylic (LIP-O-FILL-IK). This means they tend to concentrate in fat tissues. When you eat the milk or meat of an animal that was raised on feed that has chemicals in it, you yourself will begin to concentrate these chemicals in your own body to a much greater degree than if you simply ate the contaminated food yourself. This is because animals eat massive quantities of feed through the course of their lives concentrating these compounds to levels you would not be able to achieve if you ate the food yourself.
A recent study in the January 2009 journal Environmental International showed a popular pesticide called hexachlorobenzene was highly concentrated in human fat tissue. The levels found were directly correlated to how much milk, cheese, chicken, and fish were eaten. Exposure to this compound and other pesticides was shown in the February 2005 journal Pediatrics and the November 1998 and October 1998 issues of Environmental Health Perspectives to interrupt the maturity of young women, increase the pesticide concentrations in breast milk, and interrupt normal immune function. The scary thing is that this is one of many pesticides used in food processing around the world that ends up concentrated in the animals eating the crops they are sprayed on.
Likewise, overdosing animals on antibiotics and growth hormones is another issue. Organic animals, unlike conventional animals, do not receive routine antibiotic therapy or standard growth hormone. The question to ask is why are these measures used in conventional animal processing in the first place? The reason is that animals processed in the conventional manner are raised in unnatural conditions. They can live in crowded and stressful surroundings. They eat foods like corn and sorghum that are unnatural to their digestive systems. This adds up to an animal that is under chronic stress and under digestive distress increasing the probability of becoming malnourished and sick. And when they do, antibiotics are needed to keep them just healthy enough to be processed. One thing to keep in mind is that naturally raised animals do not have the same risk of disease for themselves or humans. A cow, for instance, is not meant to eat grain, and when it does E. coli bacteria will often overgrow. You can think of a cow eating grain like a human who is lactose intolerant drinking milk. Both will result in rather unpleasant digestive upset and potentially alter the bacterial concentration of the digestive system. Feeding a cow large amounts of grain almost guarantees the need for antibiotics to keep down the growth of bacteria like E. coli.
Another interesting issue related to antibiotics, and their use in the animals you eat, is in the development of resistant strains of bacteria. It is one thing to get a bacterial infection of salmonella or E. Coli, but it is a whole other thing to be able to treat it effectively. It turns out that the wide spread and heavy use of antibiotics in conventionally raised animals creates resistant bacteria that are especially dangerous to humans because the bacteria can be immune to many of the antibiotics your doctor will use to treat your illness. This issue was highlighted in a very recent study published in just over 1 year ago. This article in the Journal of Food Protection (vol 71 # 12) showed that while there was very little difference in the amount of bacteria present on organic meat versus conventional meat, the bacteria present on conventional meat was highly resistant to many different types of antibiotics. The bacteria living on the organic meat, on the other hand, were shown to be sensitive to 7 of the 10 antibiotics tested. This is another critical piece of understanding between organic vs. conventional meat because the development of resistant strains of bacteria impacts everyone.
Growth Hormones & other hormones
At the same time, sick and stressed animals can have a difficult time growing fat or producing enough milk which means less money at market for farmers. To deal with this and assure maximum growth potential, growth hormones, sex steroids, and other hormones are used to increase productivity. There is an ongoing debate in the scientific literature and among regulating bodies such as the USDA WHO, and CODEX about what if any risk these hormones play in human health. A December 2002 article in the American journal Nutrition Research Reviews discussed this debate at length but did indeed present evidence that many of the hormones used in the meat industry can be potential carcinogens. Many European countries feel they have seen enough evidence and have banned any animal products where hormones are used.
Another little known fact related to milk consumption is the large amount of cow estrogen and progesterone that is found in the milk and dairy products we consume. Many people stress about hormone mimickers in plastics, pesticides and other places, but they are unaware that 60 to 80% of foreign estrogens consumed by the average person are coming from conventional cows milk. This is due to the common practice of milking cows 300 days out of the year. This milking continues even when the cow is pregnant. It is estimated that 1/3 to 1/2 of cattle being milked in an industrial milk factory are pregnant at any one time. The designation of “organic” milk does not protect against this possible issue.
Natural Fed vs. Organic
By now you should definitely be seeing that an organic animal is a far better option for your health than a conventionally raised animal, but it is not the best option. Many organically raised animals are still kept and handled in a way that is less than desirable. But most important of all, in order for an animal to be healthy, it needs to eat natural healthy food it is designed to eat. Nowhere is this issue more visible than with fish and cattle. By now most people who pay attention to issues of health have heard at some point that red meat (i.e., cow) is bad for you. Usually the rationale is that red meat is high in fat and has the wrong types of fats in it. By the same token, many people have heard fish is very healthy because it has fats that are good for the heart called omega 3. Well, here is the thing. If you feed a cow its natural food which is grass instead of grain the same “good” fats found in fish will be concentrated in the cow. That is because grass like algae has high concentrations of omega 3 oils. So, a grass fed or organically raised cow is, forgive the pun, and entirely different animal. By the same token, if you take a fish and throw him into a giant tank with a bunch of other fish and feed them corn, sorghum, and grain (the same things fed to a cow), the healthy fish oils will start to look a lot like the unhealthy fat in most meat. Farm raised fish and grain fed cattle whether organic or not should not be considered health food. The health of an animal like the health of a human depends on the lifestyle and food they eat.
Two studies on both cattle and fish show the truth of the above points. In Volume 15 Number 1 of the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical nutrition showed that cattle that were fed grass vs. cattle that were fed grain had lower fat levels and higher levels of healthy omega 3 fats. In addition, grain fed cattle had higher concentrations of trans fat and saturated fat. Cows are not the only animals where diet and growth conditions are important. Fish is widely regarded as a very healthy food. A July 2008 article in the Journal of the American Diabetes Association looked at the 4 most common farmed raised fish (Salmon, Trout, Tilapia, and Catfish) to determine the concentrations of healthy fats. While Salmon and Trout were shown to retain marginal levels of Omega 3 oils, the tilapia and cat fish were shown to have very high levels of saturated and omega 6 fats resembling the same health profile as conventional cattle.
It is the Lifestyle, Stupid
We often get tired of the medical experts in the popular media always saying it all boils down to genetics. They believe that if a human gets sick it is probably due to poor genetics, and they rarely consider a person’s living habits. But, the health of a cow (or fish, or pig, or chicken, etc.) like a human is based on how they live. The thing that really distinguishes a healthy animal is whether they live on their natural diet and in their natural habitat. A cow is meant to eat grass its whole life, not be crammed into a feedlot and force-fed grain. A fish too is meant to eat algae or other fish that eat algae. They are not meant to be packed into giant tanks and fed corn and other foods they are not designed to consume. A chicken or turkey does best on a diet of insects and worms and a life of ranging freely, not crammed in a metal box of bars. Here are 6 tips to getting healthy animal protein for you and the environment.
Some tips on clean protein eating:
1) Eat wild game whenever possible – Elk, deer, and other wild animals make an excellent source of protein, are low in fat, and highly concentrated in good healthy fats.
2) Eat animals that don’t do well on grain – animals like buffalo and lamb do not do as well as other animals on grain. While they will likely still get some, they will usually have less than other animals.
3) Eat grass fed/finished cow – Remember all cows are fed grass until they are taken to the feedlot and fattened up. The amount of time they spend in the feedlot is directly proportional to how healthy they will be. Ask if the cattle was grass finished, that will tell you whether they went to a feedlot or not.
4) Eat wild fish whenever possible – Avoid the common farmed raised fish, and ask which ones are wild caught or line caught.
5) Eat Alaskan salmon or salmon in the can – there is no such thing anymore as a wild Atlantic salmon. The only wild salmon comes from the west coast. Most canned Salmon is wild.
6) Eat low fat animals – if all else fails, eat animals that are low in fat to minimize the negative contaminants and bad fats.
7) Remember, that eating a diet rich in vegetables, with “clean” protein sources and controlling stress with exercise and sleep are the most important and biggest bang-for-your-buck behaviors.