Concerned consumers looking to eat more healthfully or to reduce their environmental impact have taken an interest in meat, dairy, and poultry food label buzzwords like grain-fed, pasture-raised, and free-range.

What do the labels mean?

Some of these terms describe particular ways of keeping livestock and poultry. Pasture-raised animals roam in a natural environment and eat grasses and forage. When animals are defined as free-range it means that they are allowed to graze and forage outside at least part of the day.

In Canada, chickens raised for meat are considered free-run, which means that they are free to roam large, climate-controlled areas with round-the-clock access to food and water. And cage-free simply means an animal was raised without a cage, not that they were allowed to move around freely or that they were raised under particular conditions.

None of these terms has a legal definition in Canada.

Other terms tell a consumer how livestock or poultry were fed before they made it to market. Chickens are grain-fed, consuming a mix mostly comprised of corn, wheat, and barley. Grain-fed cows may eat a combination of corn, other grains, and often given supplements to boost their health or to promote milk production in dairy cows.

A cow that is grass-fed consumes a diet of grass, hay, and other natural forage materials, which is the most natural and appropriate food for cows. A cow is a ruminant (meaning it has four stomachs), and the tough, fibrous grasses to be found in pasture are easier to digest than grains.

What does this mean to consumers?

In terms of nutrition, the meat, eggs, and dairy products made from pasture-raised animals tend to be lower in calories and total fat than foods produced from so-called conventionally raised animals.

Evidence suggests pasture-raised products also contain higher levels of vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Free-range chickens also contain less fat, fewer calories, and their eggs contain more vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids than their conventionally raised counterparts.

As for the environmental impact, by some estimates, pasture-based animal management saves resources and protects the health of both the consumers and the animals. Pasture grazing also eliminates the need for farms to produce feed for their animals.

Amy Toffelmire