Back in October 2015, the World Health Organization unleashed a flurry of sensationalist headlines when it announced that its international panel of experts found a significant link between processed meats (and, to a lesser degree, red meat) and cancer. And while bacon lovers, vegans, and Internet commenters all went crazy for a little while, the hype has largely died down, likely in part because the actual recommendations for dietary shift in the WHO paper were much more measured than the headlines led us to believe.
This moderate approach to eating is increasingly popular. The January issue of Bon Appetit’s is devoted to the “Food Lover’s Cleanse” — a series of recipes that are mostly healthy, but still taste delicious, an ode to flexibility in the balancing act between good nutrition and good taste. In December, PBS aired a documentary version of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, in which he famously sums up what’s he’s learned about healthy eating in seven words: “Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants.”
Even as the author of “Breaking Vegetarian,” I can completely support the idea that modern Americans eat far too much meat. We should eat mostly plants. But what I think often gets overlooked in the conversation on moderate eating habits is a reminder that not all meats are created equal. Certain kinds of meat—or, rather, meat produced in a certain way—have a much greater negative impact on our health than others.
For the most part, reporting on the health effects of meat has focused on the two bad guys mentioned above: processed meat and red meat. And while it’s true that the preservatives used in curing and processing meat can be harmful, and that poultry is lower in cholesterol and saturated fat, it’s also true that there’s nuance in both of these situations.
For instance, as Paste food editor Sara Bir articulated in a recent piece, some alternatives to the villainized straight sodium nitrite preservatives also contain nitrites. Many of the negative health effects of processed meats can be avoided if you salt-cure your own meat, or buy directly from a local producer who does; but salt itself contains nitrate, and you can’t avoid it altogether.
On the other hand, the negative health effects of red meat are often directly connected to its means of production. Evidence suggests that grass-fed beef is lower in overall fat, and can lower cholesterol. In addition, grass-fed meat can be a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids (because those animals eat lots of green plants, a new excellent source of Omega-3s).
In contrast, even poultry raised in confined feeding operations can carry enormous public health risk in the form of antibiotic-resistant diseases and contamination.
This is just one small example, but I think it’s worth remembering that not all red meat is bad, and not all fish, poultry, or even produce, is healthy. There are distinctions within those categories that we also need to learn to moderate.
Learning what kinds of meat we should work harder to avoid, and what kinds of meat we can eat without guilt helps us make healthier choices, but it also helps remind us ethical eaters that healthy choices for us are often also better for the environment, for livestock animals, and for farm worker conditions.
I’m glad to see the American conversation about food continue to shift towards moderation and balance, especially when it comes to an overall reduction in the amount of meat we eat. But I’ll be even happier when we also recognize that local, pasture-raised livestock animals truly are a different beast.
Are you interested in making the switch toward local, pasture-raised meat, or at least adding some of it to your diet? Check out this resource called Eat Wild, a directory of more than 1,400 pasture-raised farms that promise to meet Eat Wild’s criteria, including not only ensuring animals are grass-fed, antibiotic-free, pasture-raised and hormone-free, but also that their waste and runoff do not harm local water sources or the soil itself.
Better yet, know your local farm and farmer. Small farms like Scapegoats Goatscaping on Martha’s Vineyard (in addition to providing goatscaping services for your land) provide bacon and pork chops that are pasture-raised, nitrate-free and hormone-free.
Many farmer’s markets also have pasture-raised meat. Just look for the farmer or salesperson who looks like she or he is running a secret stand, doling packed meat out from a couple big white coolers.
And it’s never too early to start children on learning about sustainable, pasture-raised farming — this preschool design hopes to teach kids how to farm their own food, including meat and vegetables.
Main photo by usdagov CC BY
Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.