• Michelle Chen
  • Dog Nutrition and Member Service Specialist

  • 3 mins read time
  • Organic, Grass Fed, Pasture Raised: Worth It?

    While deciding which dog food to feed, you might find yourself stuck between the overwhelming number of choices out there. Organic! Grass Fed! Pasture Raised! Or you’ve decided to make your own dog food but you’re caught at the butcher’s aisle trying to pick between an affordable grain-fed meat and a pricier grass-fed meat. What’s the difference and does it nutritionally matter? Let’s take a look at the differences!

    Organic

    Organic foods must follow USDA guidelines such as no antibiotics and conventional pesticides, and much more. But AAFCO labeling requirements on the term “organic” can be confusing for pet owners who don’t know the details: organic refers to the processing of ingredients, not the quality. Choose organic ingredients for your dog’s food to reduce the amount of toxic pesticides and antibiotics (which lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria) consumed. Choosing organic will also help reduce the stress on the environment. A study of organic and nonorganic meat shows that organic meat is higher in nutrients but this is likely because of the correlation of organic meat also being labeled as grass-fed meat. However, organic beef doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been grass fed. A grain fed cow can be fed organic grain and would be labelled organic beef. When picking out organic ingredients, scrutinize the quality by checking standards and questioning the producer.

    Grass-Fed/Pasture-Raised vs. Grain-Fed

    Grains such as corn and soy are a naturally high source of omega 6s as shown in the graph above. But grains are stressful for ruminants and poultry to digest because it’s not their natural diet. Their natural diet consists of grasses. The resulting grain-fed animals tend to be 2-3 times higher in saturated fat. They are also more likely to harbor bacteria. Many grass-fed animals such as cows are pasture-raised but moved to grain feedlots a month or so before slaughter. This means they are grain-finished. Grain-finished animals have double the amount of fat of grass-finished animals. Since these grain-fed cows are consuming large amounts of corn and soy, the meat they produce is also high in omega 6s. When our dogs eat grain-fed beef frequently, they will get an imbalanced and inflammatory omega 6:3 ratio.

    Choose grass-fed meat because it’s leaner and higher in protein with a more balanced omega ratio. Look for grass-finished labels. Grass-fed and pasture-raised labels are more common but misleading, clarify with the producer or ask if the animals were 100% grass-fed.  When purchasing grass-fed meat, ask for grass-finished or grass-fed meat that is not grain-finished.

    Wild vs. Domestic

    So if factory farmed animals are fed grain diets and pumped with antibiotics and hormones, how do they differ from wild animals? There is truth in the saying “you are what you eat.” For example, a domestic chicken fed nutritionally poor food will produce chicken meat that is nutritionally poor. Generally, meat from wild prey are higher protein, less fat, and have a more balanced ratio of omega 3s and 6s. To avoid illness, choose wild animals that were able to feed on species-appropriate diets and not force fed cheap grains. Using the USDA database for food composition we can see that Wild Salmon has a 1.3:1 omega 3:6 ratio while farmed salmon has a 5:1 omega 3:6 ratio, the omega 3:6 ratio is much more balanced in wild salmon.

    Wild Salmon

    Farmed Salmon

    21g protein

    21g protein

    6g fat

    8g fat

    1.2g saturated fat

    1.8g saturated fat

    2.1g monounsaturated fat

    3.3g monounsaturated fat

    2g PUFA

    1.9g PUFA

    0.2g LA

    0.35g LA

    0.16g ALA

    0.008g ALA

    1.3:1 ratio

    5:1 ratio

    When comparing boar to farmed pigs, wild ducks to ducks, and pheasants to chickens, findings were similar. The domestic versions were higher in fat and much higher in saturated fat.

    We can see that wild animals are more nutritionally beneficial and balanced than domestic animals as fed. But using wild prey for your dog’s food isn’t always accessible. Luckily, humans have seen these benefits of raising farm animals similar to how they would live in the wild for human consumption. 100% grass fed and pasture raised animals were found to be nutritionally similar to their wild counterparts so if wild prey isn’t an option, choose 100% grass fed animals.

    How did this happen?

    With the booming popularity of the meat industry, farmers and suppliers have found ways to increase supply to meet the world’s demand. To make these giant operations more profitable, they used cheaper grain feed and growth hormones to fatten up animals quickly. And they use unnecessary antibiotics to fight diseases the animals were guaranteed to get from overcrowding and poor quality diets.

    Ruminants such as cows, goats, and sheep have multiple stomachs specially designed to ferment grass and hay. But their systems struggle to process grains such as corn and overfeeding leads to digestive problems such as acidosis and liver abscesses. This is where antibiotics come in to keep the animals alive with the added effect of speeding up growth. Heavy use of antibiotics in the meat industry is believed to contribute to rising antibiotic resistance to bacteria. And E. coli was found to grow much more in the digestive tract of grain-fed cows. The bacteria doesn’t harm the cows but it can contaminate the meat during slaughter. Our dogs won’t get sick from E. Coli but they can act as carriers and making us ill. It can also drain into water run-off leading to E. coli contamination on fruits and vegetables in the produce section.

    In summary, wild prey or meat that is raised and fed similar to how they would be in the wild (grass-finished, pasture-raised) are leaner, higher protein, and provide the best balance of fatty acids. Grain-fed animals tend to be fattier, lower protein, and are higher in inflammatory omega 6s . Organic options are earth friendly due to their lack of pesticides, added hormones, and antibiotics. However, organic labelling and ingredient quality can be misleading in commercial pet foods. Making your own food lets you know exactly what is going into your dog’s bowl and local farmers, butchers, and hunters are an excellent resource for cost effective wild or grass-finished meat. Other options such as adding whole fish like smelt, high quality and sustainably sourced fish oil, or phytoplankton (omega 3-rich algae that fish feed on) can help to balance your dog’s food and help them live longer and healthier!