Disclaimer: These remarks reflect my own views. They do not necessarily reflect the views of ButcherBox or any other individual or company.
In a passionate world of dietary wars marked by low fat versus low carb, and vegan versus carnivore, perhaps one of the biggest travesties lies in an often simplistic categorization of meat and seafood. AKA: It's either a plant, or an animal. End of discussion. Yet I'd question if, instead, the farming practices and nutrition content of both plants and animals outweighs the category itself. Perhaps it is not a matter of kingdom which is so detrimental to our health and the environment, but rather the effects on those kingdoms from conventional agriculture. I believe consuming meat and seafood which is raised sustainably, with practices supporting the continued circle of life, may hold the key to the health of both our bodies and the planet.
So take a walk with me, as we explore the crucial nutritional implications of conventional versus organic, pastured farming practices, as well as my review of Butcher Box, a company who works with responsible farms to source meat raised with humane practices. By cutting out the middle man (looking at you grocery stores!) and shipping straight to the consumer on dry ice, Butcher Box is providing affordable access to a much needed paradigm shift. Their mission? "ButcherBox believes in better. Our mission is to create a world where everyone wins with meat that is better for you and your family, the animals, the farmers, businesses, and our planet. We deliver high quality meat you can trust; 100% grass-fed and pasture raised beef, free-range organic chicken, heritage breed pork, and wild caught Alaskan salmon directly to your door on a monthly basis. All of our products are humanely raised and never given antibiotics or added hormones ever." Take that convention!
Before we dive in deep, perhaps we should clarify some vague terminology. “Sustainable” is an agricultural philosophy supporting the well-being of the environment and community without jeopardizing future generations. It is similar to the more approachable “organic,” in that both aim to minimize toxic practices, though “sustainable” is not regulated by the US government. Not all sustainable agriculture is organic. (For instance, “sustainable” use of nonorganic antibiotics or fertilizers.) On the flip side, not all organic agriculture is sustainable. (For instance, an organic farm could still be large and industrialized, therefore taxing resources.) In any case, I encourage you to individually research the companies and farms producing your food, and invest your money where you see fit. Labels are just labels, but a farm’s actions speak louder than its words. Trust in your supplier is key!
Speaking of trust, while I'll explore all the juicy details (pun intended) of Butcher Box throughout this post, here is the answer they provided when I inquired about how they choose the farmers with which they partner: "Building a trusted network of suppliers is no simple task, as you might imagine. As we’ve grown over the years, we’ve been able to foster many wonderful relationships with suppliers and farmers—and that’s something we take a lot of pride in. All of our suppliers are selected based on a strict set of criteria that includes guidelines related to the welfare of the animals, as well as the wellbeing of the farmers. Farms, animals and processing plants are routinely inspected independently by government agencies, animal advocacy groups and other third-party verifiers." More on all that to come!
Grain-fed Vs. Grass-fed Nutrition
While I'll save pontifications on the red meat debate for another post, beef can provide a rich, nutritious source of protein, fatty acids, and fat-soluble nutrients. That said, conventional beef that you typically find at the grocery store (and likely even a la a $50 steak at your neighborhood fine dining steakhouse) comes with a host of problems, both for the environment and your health. Often raised in crowded conditions, pumped with antibiotics, and fed unnatural grain and soy feed to fatten them prematurely, conventional beef - while perhaps tasty on the palate - can also be shockingly high in toxins, with lackluster nutrient profiles compared to their sustainably-raised, pastured counterparts.
Both grass-fed and grain-fed beef feature comparable total amounts of saturated and polyunsaturated fats, but grass-fed beef is leaner overall, with arguably more health-promoting types of fat to boot. On the saturated side of things, grass-fed beef features more stearic fatty acids, which do not detrimentally affect cholesterol levels, whereas grain-fed contains more potentially cholesterol-raising myristic and palmitic fatty acids. Grass-fed beef also contains significantly higher levels of the anti-inflammatory polyunsaturated omega-3 fats. In fact, the more grains the cattle eat, the less omega-3s they generate. Grass-fed beef can also yield two to three times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may discourage weight gain, diabetes, and cancer.
On the flip side, grain-fed beef does typically contain higher levels of healthy monounsaturated fats (MUFA) than grass-fed beef, but this is likely just because that’s how its excess fat materializes. (As discussed, grain-fed beef tends to be fattier than grass-fed.) In any case, I’d much rather embrace the overall leaner, healthier saturated and polyunsaturated fat of grass-fed beef than turn to grain-fed for more MUFA. (Maybe turn to avocados for those?)
As for vitamins, grass-fed beef contains around seven times more beta-carotene—the precursor for vitamin A—which gives the beef fat a more characteristic yellow tone. Vitamin A is key for bone health, vision, the immune system, cell reproduction, and membranes throughout the body, from the eyes to the lungs to the nether regions! Grass-fed beef also contains around three times the amount of the antioxidant vitamin E, specifically its potent α-tocopherol form, which can combat free radicals and toxins in the body. These vitamin E levels discourage oxidation, meaning grass-fed varieties may last longer in your fridge. Oh hey, money saving! Other nutrients higher in grass-fed beef, include CLA, ALA and lutein!
Antioxidants (yes, animal products can contain antioxidants!) boosted by the pasture, include glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase (CAT), thanks to their presence in grass. Glutathione, akin to the Superman of antioxidants, regulates inflammation, attacks free radicals, and protects DNA and proteins throughout the cells of the body. SOD and CAT are more like Batman and Robin: SOD attacks with hydrogen peroxide, while CAT breaks down the hydrogen peroxide. Pretty nifty.
On par with the importance of what grass-fed beef contains, is what it doesn’t contain. Since living bodies often shuttle toxins into fat stores to protect vital systems, cattle dining on the pesticides, hormones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and other toxins that are present in grain-fed cows’ feed, easily accumulate in beef fat. Studies even find toxic compounds including dioxins, PCBs, and flame retardants in conventional beef—yikes!
But wait! While you may think you can just pick up grass-fed beef at the store and be good to go... such is not the case! While the label of "grass-fed" is key in spirit for the nutritional content of beef, as it indicates that the cattle dined on their natural, nutrient-rich diet, the USDA actually withdrew their official definition of the term in January 2016. While still regulated, farmers can now assume more individual standards, which infuses a bit of ambiguity. They can actually keep the cows on pastures for part of their lives, and then fatten them up at the end with grains! The label also does not address the use of antibiotics, pesticides, or GMOs, and supplemental grains can potentially still be used as well. This is why the much less common term of “grass finished” is key in assuring a 100 percent grass-fed diet. Importantly: all of Butcher Box's beef is grass-fed and grass-finished!
And what about organic? Ok, I am a huge fan of organic for obvious reasons. However, there's a slight caveat with the label of organic beef. Per the USDA, organic means the cows were raised in "living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.” Did you spot the problem? The Waldo in that sentence, is the "100% organic feed and forage," which means that organic beef is not automatically grass-fed. This organic feed could easily (and typically does) include grains and soy. So "organic" beef does not mean it was completely pasture raised, or grain and soy free.
That said, given the rigorous application process, many farmers may practice organic methods without the official seal, especially if they're the type focused on completely pastured animals. In fact, I’d probably prefer fresh produce and meat from a responsible local farmer than large-scale “organic” products from a mainstream grocery store.
Toxins And Nutrition
While chicken can be a great source of lean protein, conventional agriculture practices encourage a host of yucky things in chicken meat, from pesticides to GMOs to arsenic! Studies even suggest that the prevalence of antibiotics in chicken feed may fuel the growing problem of antibiotic resistance and disease in humans. (A 2015 Vietnamese study found antibiotic residues in around one-fifth of all chicken tested.)
The ideal form of chicken in my opinion would of course be completely organic and pastured. Short of that, I believe organic, free range chicken - especially if consuming lean chicken breasts - can be a great source of extremely affordable, clean protein, as long as acute attention is paid to the raising practices.
By USDA standards, organic poultry must be provided constant access to the outdoors, consuming organic feed with no antibiotics or growth hormones. Free range means the poultry were not caged, and had access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. That is admittedly a vague qualification. That is why I love the GAPs rating system, a nonprofit animal welfare certification which provides in-depth, meaningful labels validated by third party-farm audits, to assure humane raising of animals. The higher up the number (which goes from 1 - 5+), the more the raising conditions mimic the animals' natural environment. For Step 3 poultry (which Butcher Box provides), this means the following. (And yes, I sat down and read through the extremely lengthy and precise regulations to pull out some treasures beyond the Whole Foods pamphlet!)
The Role Of Stress
Unlike pre–World War II days of selecting healthy live chickens for dinner, today we often purchase prepackaged portions in vacuum-sealed containers. A lot of funky business can go on behind the scenes to produce these chickens that reach market weight with larger breasts, in half the time. Not surprisingly, it takes less-than-pleasant situations to engineer such a feat. And stress in the animals can actually lead to stress hormones in the fat, as well as inflammation-promoting truncated proteins!
While it may seem a bit hocus-pocusy to say a departed animal’s stress can affect your pot roast or chicken dinner, there’s actually some truth to it. When an animal is killed, its muscle glycogen transforms into lactic acid, which keeps the meat plump and juicy. Stressful situations (such as from cramped, dark growing conditions and other treatment methods) release adrenaline and reduce muscle glycogen, resulting in less lactic acid and flavorless, off-colored meat. Lactic acid also protects against spoilage, so conventionally stressed meat is more likely to contain bacteria, go rancid, and instigate food poisoning. Less lactic acid also leads to more acidic meat and free radicals—yikesabee! So while you may want to raise an eyebrow when a a farm brags about its happy chickens . . . know there’s something to that! Eating fear for dinner may not taste the best, and it can weigh on your conscience to boot!
And as Teri Cochrane discussed in Wildatarian, the stress of conventional farming methods actually leads to truncated proteins called amyloids, which are inflammatory in our system, and which can lead to a host of health conditions, such as autoimmune conditions, Alzheimer's, and Type 2 diabtetes, as well as other issues such as headaches, GI distress, and fatigue. These amyloids are misfolded proteins which can clump together, forming "fibrils," which contribute to further protein aggregation. This can lead to fibrous deposits around cells which interfere with cell function. When our body cannot adequately break down these deposits, further inflammation and health conditions can result.
Studies have found amyloids in animal proteins in commercial chicken and beef, and especially in inflamed animals. This is thanks to infections from living conditions, antibiotics to address those illnesses, as well as the animals eating diets not suited to their digestion. In fact, researchers speculate that many increasing disorders connected to amyloids in the body, may be in fact do the rampant exposure to amyloids in diet.
Pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world. Unfortunately, quality pork is hard to come by, with the majority of pork in the US (especially bacon), raised in unfavorable conditions, which is particularly problematic for pork, which may more easily accumulate toxins. Pork is often touted as being inflammatory, however studies show the coagulation response to pork in the blood can be avoided by marinating heritage breeds in acidic mediums for 24 hours. Heritage breeds are the natural "old-world" style of pigs, before conventional farming practices took over. As Teri Cochrane discusses in Wildatarian, heritage breeds are less likely to feature inflammatory-sparking amyloids.
Curing And Processing (Oh Hey Bacon!)
The curing and processing techniques can also determine pork's health and inflammation potential. Because pork is quite perishable, it has historically been "cured" for preservation, often with various types of salts, resulting in pork's common manifestation: bacon and ham. That said, conventional curing methods often use toxic nitrates and nitrites to plump up appearance and flavor, as bacteria ferment the nitrates - which react with the meat to create a pink color. Sugar is also often added to balance the saltines and enhance flavor, while also providing a substrate for microorganism fermentation.
The problem? Nitrates have been linked to cancer, as well as encouraging carcinogenic nitrosoamines once ingested. Yikes! That's why it's so important to find bacon which is "uncured," meaning no nitrates were added. The same curing effect can be achieved without the carnincogenic side effects, by using celery salts, which feature natural nitrates. Studies on the inflammatory response in the blood to bacon, have also found uncured bacon ammeleoriates the inflammatory coagulation response. (Note: Whether or not the bacon is smoked is a different aspect, and actually happens after any curing processes)
The pork takeaway? For ultimate health, you want to be consuming heritage breed pork, and marinating it in an acidic medium, such as wine or vinegar. This will mitigate the blood coagulation response, kill bacteria and parasites, tenderize the meat, and also enhance flavor. For bacon, you want to choose bacon without sugar, nitrates, or perservaties.
On the one hand, seafood can be a wonderful source of high quality protein, as well as vital nutrients often lacking in our modern diets. These include iodine, selenium, a multitude of vitamins (including some vitamin D!), and, perhaps most important, the vital EPA and DHA forms of omega-3s. Our ability to fish was likely a major catalyst in the evolution of our species, and seafood is a primary constituent in the diets of many centenarian populations. Basically, seafood is da bomb. That said, things get tricky. As per usual.
Thanks to us humans having polluted our oceans, heavy metals (such as mercury), radioactive isotopes, and other toxins easily accumulate in wild fish. Farm-raised versions are also typically awash in antibiotics, grain and GMO feed, and disgusting by-products. (Think sewage sludge. Ew.) Overfishing also taxes natural fish populations, spelling trouble for future generations. So while I'm all about fish (and believe it's one of the best sources of protein, fatty acids, and nutrients), one must be extremely careful in choosing wild-caught fish from clean waters, and/or farm raised fish from fisheries with reputable, sustainable practices.
The seafood industry is also notorious for being, well.... fishy. We're talking things like skewing weights by adding water and fudging numbers (especially problematic when you're concerned about your financial investment), lying about countries of origin (especially problematic when you're concerned about clean water sourcing and heavy metal contamination), adding undeclared food additives (especially problematic when you're reactive to additives!), and even substituting completely different species (especially problematic because, well, #Icanteven). That's why I adore companies like Legit Fish, which provides a scannable QR code with trackable species, vessel names, fishing area, and landing port, as reported to the government by dockside dealer records. Yey traceability and transparency!
A major concern when it comes to health and fish, is mercury content. Having personally struggled from severe mercury toxicity, I cannot express enough how important it is to choose fish lower in mercury, such as shellfish and salmon. For an extensive overview of this, please see my blog post, Mercury Madness: Exposure Sources, Safe Fish Consumption, Chelation, EDTA/DMPS/DMSA, Detox, Amalgams, The Cutler Protocol, Glutathione, And More! which includes an extensive overview of mercury contamination, as well as my guide to safe seafood consumption.
MY PERSONAL BUTCHER BOX EXPERIENCE
Until you've tried truly pastured grass-fed, grass-finished ground beef or steaks, it's hard to know what you're missing. With that said, here's my honest review of what Butcher Box offers, as well as my personal experience of how it goes down, from beginning to end!
Butcher Box Beef
When it comes to beef, I believe the key is truly pastured, grass-fed, grass-finished beef, from farmers you trust, which is what I love about Butcher Box. While all of Butcher Box's beef is not labeled organic, they work with farmers committed to grass-fed, grass-finished practices. As discussed, while it is of course not a blanket statement, many farmers who choose to engage in sustainable, grass-fed, grass-finished practices, often extend that to personal organic choices as well, without applying for any official "seal." The beef is also notably sourced from ranchers in Australia, where the climate allows for the cattle to roam free year-round. This also minimizes exposure to pervasive pesticides saturating the US environment, even in "organic" territory. As far as taste goes, just wait till you taste truly grass-fed, grass-finished ground beef or steak. More on that in my experience at the end of this post!
Butcher Box Chicken
In addition to GAPs 3 certification discussed above, the organic, free-range poultry provided by Butcher Box is also specifically raised with practices to minimize stress. I had previously been only buying organic Smart Chicken due to the stunning procedures they use - known as controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) - which Butcher Box is adopting. In fact, Butcher Box is the first e-commerce company to make a full commitment to these practices, in tandem with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. While this will be officially complete in place by 2024, the majority of their chicken farmers currently use these practices.
Butcher Box Pork
As discussed in the Pork section, the breed and preservation methods of pork is key for mitigating the inflammatory potential of pork. And Butcher Box fits the bill! They provide heritage breed pork, and sugar-free bacon without preservatives! Specifically, Duroc, Berkshire, and Chester White breeds of pork, and bacon made with only water, sea salt, celery powder, and a non-dairy lactic acid starter culture. How hard is that to find??
Butcher Box Seafood (Salmon and Scallops!)
At present, Butcher Box offers wild-caught salmon, as well as scallops - species low on the mercury contamination front. They've also partnered with the previously discussed Legit Fish for accountability and traceability!
Butcher box sources its sockeye salmon from the beautiful cold waters of Bristol Bay Alaska, a place where the fishing industry protects not only the natural resources, but also the vital lives of the native people. In fact, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game which controls the fisheries, only allows them to open once the yearly spawning escapement has been achieved. Fishing permits can also only be owned by individuals, not corporations. The salmon itself boasts a rich flavor, firm texture, and natural dark red color, thanks to its natural health-boosting astaxanthin, rather than from added pigmentation common in farm raised practices.
Butcher Box also features wild-caught scallops from Georges Banks, Massachusetts. These scallops are known for their pearly white color with an orange hue, which is thanks to the female scallops production of zeaxanthin - a powerful antioxidant which also gives the scallops a deliciously sweet taste! Butcher Box has also specifically partnered with a buyer who takes extensive steps at the scallop auctions: they send experts to scope the scallops, looking for subtle differences such as the exact shades of white and orange, the texture, and even the floors beneath the scallops. (If they see milky liquid below, that's a sign of poorer quality!) Once purchased, the scallops are cleaned and frozen, and further inspected, then placed directly into the bags you receive when you order! That means you don't have to worry about repackaging, adding additives, or refreezing in between! The package scallops are also labeled with the previously discussed QR code for extensive traceability, via Legit Fish. So when it comes to high quality scallops (which are also low in mercury, yey!) Butcher Box is the way to go!
How It Works
You start by signing up for Butcher Box online (Use the link Butcherbox.com/melanieavalon to get $20 off, plus whatever amazing offer they're running. Right now it's 3lbs of chicken wings in every box for the rest of your life!!!) Butcher Box has different box options, including mixed boxes of their beef, chicken, and/or pork, as well as a custom box. With the mixed boxes, you receive different potential cuts out of their many options, while in the custom box, you can choose the specific cuts. There are up to 21 different potential cuts, with examples including ground beef, NY strips, sirloin, chicken breasts, whole chickens, bone-in thighs, boneless thighs, pork chops, ribs, etc. You can choose between 2 sizes, ranging from 8-22 lbs, and can adjust your frequency to every 2, 4, or 6 weeks. You can also add on things to the mixed boxes, such as salmon, ground beef, or bacon. And of course, you can change your choices at any time.
As for getting you the goods, Butcher Box provides free shipping, with sustainable packaging on dry ice. You receive a tracking number (shipped via FedEx), and signature is not required upon delivery. Their fantastic packaging is made from 95% recycled material, and is also 100% curbside recyclable. The insulation is designed to keep the meat and seafood frozen, and includes a separate dry ice compartment. My boxes have always arrived compeltley frozen! You can pause your order for up to 6 months, and can also cancel at any time, as long you do so before the next billing.
Receiving, Storing, Defrosting
When you receive your Butcher Box, you can immediately transfer the cuts to your freezer, where they can remains for up to one year, and in theory indefinitely, although the quality may be affected after that. You can transfer the meat and seafood to your refrigerator to defrost. The chicken can last 3-5 days in the refrigerator as long as it is still vacuum sealed, the steaks and pork can actually remain up 2 weeks in the fridge if vacuumed sealed (though ground beef and pork should be used after 1-2 days), and salmon will last 1-2 days. The salmon is the only instance where you should not defrost it in its packaging, since doing so actually encourages the production of anaerobic bacteria. If you need to defrost fast, you can do so under cold water which you change every 30 minutes until defrosted, which will take around an hour for a pound of meat. You should not use hot water to defrost, which can encourage the growth of bacteria.
Because of these thawing and storage times, you can actually pick out your cuts for the entire week if you like, and have them thawing in the fridge accordingly!
How It Tastes
When I tried my first grass-fed, grass-finished steak from Butcher Box, I wasn't sure what to expect. I took out the steak and thawed it per the cold water method, as I had just received the box, and wanted to try it pronto! As I'm a rare steak lover myself, I briefly seared the steak, and then dug in.
Despite the filet's lean fat content, my knife easily sliced through it like butter. Then when I tried it... I'm not making this up... it was honestly the BEST steak I've had that I can actually remember. That is the honest truth, from a girl whose heart is won with filet mignons and Pinot Noir. It was the most tender, delicious cut of beef to ever grace my Disney Haunted Mansion porcelain plate. Just reflecting on it now makes my mouth water. Pure, nutritious goodness. From that first bite, I swore never to buy any other steak again! (Unless from a heavily researched local farmer of course.) I later tried one of the pork chops, and it did not disappoint. Who knew pork could taste that way? Clearly I didn't. (I don't think I'd ever had heritage breed pork either, come to think of it.) The chicken breasts are also delicious - lean and tender, with a taste equivalent to the organic Smart Chicken I'd been previously loving.
But maybe this was just me? I wasn't sure. So, as I tend to eat leaner cuts of beef myself, I paraded over to my mom's and gifted her with Butcher Box ground beef, as well as a roast. I also divvied out the bacon and some other cuts to my brother.
Both my mother and brother texted me separately to fawn over Butcher Box! My mom said it was the best ground beef she had ever tasted, and how could she sign up? My brother (who recently graduated college and is in the whole I-just-became-an-adult-and-can-cook-my-meals-like-a-grownup-honeymoon phase), also texted to say it was the most delicious meal he had yet concocted.
But maybe it was just my family?
So I began sharing Butcher Box on my podcast (The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast) and Facebook group (Paleo OMAD Biohackers: Intermittent Fasting + Real Foods + Life), and was overwhelmed with the response! Previous Butcher Box users lauded their love of the cuts, and soon to be users later chimed in. So yep, it's not just me! The people know!!
I'm a hardcore lover of Butcher Box through and through. That said, there are some things I'm hoping for in the future. I'd love for Butcher Box to offer certified organic versions of their grass-fed, grass-finished beef. (Though, as discussed in the Beefy Labels section, I'm less concerned about that label as I would be when buying beef from an untrusted "grass-fed" source.) The chicken takes the best of both worlds of the chicken I'd been previously buying: the GAPs 3 certified chicken from Whole Foods (which often tastes chewy to me?), as well as the stress-minimizing practices of Smart Chicken. Of course, I'd love if Butcher Box could offer 100% pastured chicken in the future. That said, I think - especially if consuming lean chicken breasts composed of mostly protein rather than fat - the difference between free range versus fully pastured is not a deal breaker for me, especially, if the chicken are raised in comfortable, stress-free circumstances with constant outdoor access. The pork is divine as mentioned, though an organic seal in the future would be great as well. Lastly, I'd love for the company to expand their catalogue to include some wild game! I've spoken with the company about all of this, and am keeping my fingers crossed! When I spoke with them, Butcher Box also emphasized their perspective of the future: "We’re always looking at ways to enhance our claims. At ButcherBox we only believe in taking steps forward when it comes to claims and quality, never going back." Love it!
In any case, I am truly in awe and thankful for Butcher Box. What really sold it for me, was when another supplier of organic, pastured animal products reached out to partner with me. As I am a loyal person, I reached out to Butcher Box to get their thoughts on having "competition." Their response? They told me they were all for supporting companies working to change the farming industry, and provide access to sustainable, pastured, organic meat and seafood, and would be happy for me to parter with other companies doing so! Talk about commitment to a mission, rather than profit!
Get Free Butcher Box!
I'm so grateful for Butcher Box, and am further grateful that they're extending an amazing offer to my audience! If you use the link Butcherbox.com/melanieavalon, you'll get $20 off, plus whatever amazing offer they're running. Right now, it's 3lbs of chicken wings in every box for the rest of your life!!! True. Statement.
How about you? Who here has tried Butcher Box? What has been your experience?
Note: I only list products throughout this website that I genuinely use and love. Some of the links are affiliate links, which simply means, if you decide to purchase through the links, I may receive a small percentage which can help make this blog and my podcasts possible!