Meat (love it or leave it) has a good source of protein and iron—nutrients your body needs. All plant and animal cells contain protein, but the amount and the quality varies widely among various foods. Meats such as roast beef, turkey, and chicken breast are considered complete proteins because they contain all nine of the essential amino acids required by the human body to synthesize hormones and enzymes and build, maintain, and repair body tissue.

It's not just simply a matter of whether to eat meat or not. You also have to consider hormones, antibiotics, the role of pesticides and even animal rights before you whip out your wallet. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), retail sales of organic food have risen dramatically—from 3.6 billion in 1997 to 21.1 billion in 2008. In response to scientific research and consumer demand, many grocery stores now carry organic meat products—but they come at a cost. Organic food costs 20 to 100 percent more than the conventional counterpart.

The word organic refers to the way farmers grow, handle, and process the food you eat. Organic farmers don't use conventional methods to ward off livestock disease and government standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, (used in food sterilization) and sewage sludge in organic food production.

In order for a product to be labeled organic, the farm and processing plants must be inspected by a government-approved organic food certifier.

But is organic healthier? And if so, isn't your health worth the extra money?

Dave Grotto, RD, LDN author of the forthcoming book, The Best Things You Can Eat, says the data to support claims that organic is healthier simply doesn't exist. "Just because it's organic doesn't mean the food is free of fat and cholesterol. Does organic saturated fat and cholesterol have different affects on the body than non-organic sources? I think not."

Even so, there may be other reasons to go organic.  To help you decide, here are some pros and cons.

Why Buy Organic Meat?

Cattle raised without hormones. Conventional famers are forbidden from using growth-boosting hormones in poultry and pork. However it is an acceptable practice for cows. Cattle farmers usually administer low-levels of hormones using an ear implant. The hormones help increase weight gain and are carefully monitored by the USDA.

Proponents say keeping grocery stores stocked with an affordable supply of meat requires some industrial engineering techniques (like using hormones). It takes organic farmers two and half years to raise a grass-fed cow but just 14 months if that cow is raised in a conventional feedlot. That's part of the reason why only three percent of the nation's cattle are raised organically.

Poultry and pork raised without antibiotics. The FDA approved the use of antibiotics in farming to treat, prevent, and control disease more than 50 years ago. Antibiotics have also been approved to promote animal growth in hogs and chicken raised with conventional farming techniques. Antibiotics help promote growth in animals by controlling intestinal bacteria that can block nutrient absorption.

However, concerns have been raised about the creation of antibiotic-resistant microbial pathogens. One theory is that animals treated with antibiotics develop resistant strains of microbial pathogens that can be transferred to people when foods are not thoroughly cooked. The scientific community does not agree on whether reducing the use of antibiotics in animals will lead to less antibiotic resistance in humans. Until more research is conducted, the use of drugs in animal production is not considered an immediate public health concern.

Organic beef contains more omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of spreading dangerous bacteria is reduced when cows live on free-range farms. Cattle that eat grass (rather than the corn-based feed favored in conventional farming) have more omega-3 fatty acids which are widely believed to benefit the heart, reduce the risk of cancer and arthritis and promote cognition. But as nutrition expert Grotto points out, the total amount of omega-3s in lean cuts of meat is negligible. "We are looking at about 65 mg of omega-3s per 100 grams of meat—that's about 3.5 ounces of raw product," he explains. "As far as omega-3 fat contribution, that amount is paltry compared to what is recommended per day with is one to two grams (1000 to 2000 mg)."

Grotto advises consumers to steer clear of processed meats such as cold cuts, bacon, sausages, and hot dogs as they contain nitrates—chemical additives that preserve freshness. "These fatty meat products are also full of unhealthy saturated fat which can raise levels of bad LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease and strokes," he admits.

Reducing the spread of E. coli bacteria is another advantage associated with animals that have space to roam. Cows with more room are less likely to have contact with other animals' manure (a source of the bacteria) though the FDA claims to be improving the spacing of animals on feedlots and the cleanliness of slaughterhouses.

The Bottom Line

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourages consumers to eat a variety of food from both organic and conventional sources since they provide equal nutritional value from vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The group's website has the following advice: "The best way to guard against heart disease is to eat lean animal products in order to limit total intake of saturated fat. More important than eating organic is first making the switch to lean meats and second making sure the meat portion size is appropriate."

Grotto agrees and says eating grass-fed beef is great if the price fits into your budget, but portion control should still be your biggest concern. "When it comes to portions, size matters," says the expert. "Eat lean and when you do eat meat, be sure the serving size is no bigger than a deck of cards. "




Interview with David Grotto, RD, LDN
Author of 101 Optimal Life Foods and 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life and The Best Things You Can Eat (Jan. 2013)

President and Founder, Nutrition Housecall, LLC

Advisory Board Chicago Food and Nutrition Network

Advisory Board Benedictine University Nutrition Programs

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, former spokesman


North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension

American College of Physicians

Annals of Internal Medicine (Sept. 2012) re: Stanford University study, "Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Organic Alternatives"

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association)

The New York Times,