Feedlot animals vs free range grass fed
In the research on longevity, it seems increasingly evident that a reduction in the consumption of red meat and processed meat provides health benefits. In fact, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has included processed meats, such as smoked, canned, and cured meats and sausages, in group 1, or that of products associated with cancer risk. Red meat was classified in group 2a, meaning that it’s most likely associated with risk. Perhaps because of this association, many people tend to think of the dietary patterns of the Blue Zones as being pseudo-vegetarian, containing very little meat. However, in the Sardinian Blue Zone, this strongly clashes with the dominant lifestyle, which is that of the shepherd.
In the modern world, there is an increasingly strong tendency to simplify dietary choices by focusing solely on a single aspect; for example, altering the proportion of a single macronutrient (such as the currently popular low-carb diets). However, when considering diet in the context of longevity, it’s important not to focus on just one aspect; rather, one must consider the dietary pattern as a whole. It’s also important not to ignore the environment in which the food is consumed. If we want to understand the diets of the Sardinian centenarians, we must consider not only the foods that they ate, but also the environment in which they lived.
It is very difficult today to reconstruct precisely the lifestyle of the beginning of the last century (when today’s centenarians were born). There is a striking lack of data in this area, making the undertaking very difficult and forcing us to depend almost exclusively on first-hand accounts. I feel that it’s necessary to state that my views on this subject have no real scientific validity, since they are not supported by a systematic study. Rather, they are based on my decades-long experience in this area of Sardinia, including hundreds of interviews with people above the age of 80 – a profound knowledge that comes from my extensive direct contact with the local cultural system.
The figures of the centenarian and the shepherd in Sardinia overlap to the point of becoming nearly identical, making the theory that they ate only fruit, vegetables, and legumes unlikely at best. The Sardinian shepherd led a very hard life, walking many miles every day and spending most of his time with the flocks in the open countryside. Every winter, during the period known as the transumanza, he spent many months away from his family and his community. He ate what he had available: bread, milk, cheese, ricotta, lard, sausages, and – when possible – meat. Olive oil was practically unknown in the Blue Zone region; recipes were cooked with pork lard. The contribution of animal proteins to the daily diet was certainly significant.
It seems very likely that the Sardinian centenarians were not pseudo-vegetarians, but instead consumed plenty of meat. But there is another question we should ask ourselves: how much has the quality of meat changed over the last century? Do we eat the same meat that our centenarians ate at the beginning of the century? If we want to eat as they ate, is it enough to buy organically produced meats?
Let’s take a step back and start again with this consideration: a steak can contain many more omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than a slice of fish, if the latter is bred with aquaculture techniques and fed with cereals. If it is true that we are what we eat, then the same is also true for the animals we feed on. Is it enough to buy organic products to make sure that our food is nutritionally sound? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
In Europe, the term Bio (which denotes organic products) is regulated by specific legislation (Council Regulation No. 834/2007). The standard is limited to some generic considerations about the animal welfare that any intensive farming can easily observe. The only stringent requirement to market and certify meat as organic is that it must be fed with organic feed. Be careful not to be fooled by that healthy aura that the word Bio is intended to evoke. animals bred in highly unnatural conditions, even if their feed is farmed organically, will produce meat that is harmful from a nutritional point of view, even though it can still be sold under the Bio brand.
If one intends to consume beef, much more important than knowing whether the cow ate organic feed is knowing where and how that cow led its existence. This is important not only for ethical reasons, but also because it reflects on the quality of that meat and its impact on the health of the human that consumes it. The cow evolved to eat summer herbs and winter hay; ruminant herbivores are not evolutionarily adapted to eat solely grains. Modern factory farms, on the other hand, provide a diet based nearly entirely on cereals. The primary reason has nothing to do with health; it is simply that this provides an outlet for maize and soy overproduction, which result from agricultural policies that focus on monoculture. This diet is profoundly unnatural and brings a number of health problems for the animals themselves. It is also a calorically dense diet, which causes the animal to grow very rapidly, reaching its adult size in half the time that it would take if it was reared in the wild.
If you remove a calf from its natural environment where it is free to graze in the meadows, and instead enclose it in a few square meters, feed it with a cereal-based mash and liquid fat derived from slaughter waste, supplemented with vitamins and minerals and with protein supplements obtained from processing farmed fish, pork, or poultry (including feathers and blood), then it grows quickly and is ready for slaughter in just a few months. However, this deeply unnatural diet creates serious digestive problems, so much so that it is usually necessary to add a series of drugs that facilitate digestion and stabilize the intestinal flora. Despite these precautions, the cows’ intestines become inflamed and become permeable to microbes that carry infections of all kinds. The direct consequence of such an unnatural diet, combined with the fact that the animals are often kept in very crowded conditions, leads to the transmission of infections, which are then treated with antibiotics.
There is such extensive use of these drugs that it can be confidently stated that, without antibiotics, factory farming could not exist. A European Medicine Agency report estimates that 75% of all antibiotics sold in Italy are used to treat farm animals. The massive use of antibiotics to combat epidemics also brings with it another problem: the development of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. Physicians are seeing increasing numbers of infections in humans where the pathogens involved are resistant to antibiotics, due to the frequency with which these drugs are used.
Another very serious consequence is the enormous consumption of resources that are required for factory farming done on an industrial scale. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used for the production and transport of fertilizers and pesticides necessary for the cultivation of cereals used as feed. In addition, the cultivation of these cereals (which do not even directly enter the human food supply) creates other problems, such as the consumption of arable land; 95% of all soybeans grown in the world are used as feed on factory farms. This environmentally unsustainable system aims at producing large quantities of meat at low cost. However, although the monetary cost may be low, there is still a price to pay. The huge decline in the nutritional value of the product has led to serious consequences for consumer health in recent decades. Meat, as the W.H.O. points out, should be consumed in small quantities, and should be of high nutritional quality. Unfortunately, we are witnessing precisely the opposite; too much meat is consumed, and it is of poor quality.
A sedentary animal, which is not permitted to graze freely in its natural environment and which eats a calorically dense diet, accumulates enormous amounts of fat. This includes not only visible fats (marbling), which can generally be removed from the meat at the discretion of the consumer, but also fats accumulated within muscle fiber cells themselves, which can be neither seen nor removed. It is estimated that meat bred in an industrial way has between 40 and 50% more total fat than wild-bred meat.
The quality of these fats is also poorer. An animal that feeds exclusively on cereals produces meat with a much higher percentage of saturated fats, which are believed to be harmful to human health. Among the precious polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have a variety of health benefits, factory farmed meat is more abundant in omega-6, with much less omega-3. One of the most serious problems of Western diets, according to nutritionists, is the imbalance between the proportion of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. To reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, inflammation, and neurological problems, the ideal ratio is 1 to 1 (i.e., equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fats). A slight imbalance in favor of omega-6 is considered acceptable; however, health risk starts to rise sharply at a proportion of around 1 to 4 (where 1 represents the omega-3). Unfortunately, in our modern Western diets, the ratio often exceeds 1 to 12, with very serious consequences for our health.
Grazing animals absorb omega-3 fatty acids (primarily alpha-linoleic acid) from the herbs they feed on, and accumulate these in their own fat tissue. By contrast, animals that feed on cereals mainly accumulate omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and this is reflected in the content of their meat and milk. Furthermore, natural pastures provide a whole series of substances essential for the healthy growth and development of the animal. The herbs found in a pasture provide vitamins like beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A), vitamin E, and folic acid, which are all accumulated in the meat. By a similar mechanism, the meat of factory farmed animals accumulates antibiotics. If growth hormones are given to the animals (some of these are legal in the U.S.), then these also end up in their tissues and therefore in our dishes.
In this light, we can say that industrial-scale farming leads to a drastic decline in the quality level of meat, milk, and their derivatives. Factory farming is focused on maximizing profit, with the primary benchmarks being quantities produced and market price. This market logic creates profit at the expense not only of the environment and animal welfare, but also of the quality of meat and, consequently, consumer health.