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Understanding Beef Product Labeling

While some consumers are turning to more plant-based proteins and sustainable alternatives, others aren’t quite ready to give up meat altogether, including beef.

In 2021, beef accounted for 55.5% of sales in the fresh meat department, while chicken came in second with 25.2%. Understanding beef labeling can help consumers make more informed choices.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef based on the ripeness of the animal and marbling, which is streaks of white fat throughout the meat. The first three grades are US prime, US choice and US select.

Beef that receives a higher grade will likely be from a younger animal with a generous amount of marbling. Premium beef generally contains the most fat and is best cooked using dry heat methods, such as roasting or broiling. Although tender, it’s rarely the healthiest choice and usually the most expensive choice.

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Most of the beef falls into the US choice category. It is generally tender but less marbled than prime. It can be cooked with dry or moist heat methods. The American selection tends to be the least expensive while being the leanest and healthiest of the three options, but since it’s less juicy and flavorful, it’s best to use moist heat cooking methods, such as stew or braising.

While grading can help determine the nutritional value, economic value, and optimal cooking methods of beef, the grading system is voluntary and therefore will not appear on all packages. If there is no grade, just choose beef with more red color and less marbling. Flank steak, strip loin, sirloin, tenderloin, and round or round neck roasts and steaks are generally lean options. Cut away any visible fat and, if necessary, use a meat tenderizer or marinade to help break down tough tissue and fibers.

Many cuts of meat must either have a nutrition facts label attached to the package or have the information available on signs, posters or brochures. If a Nutrition Facts label is present, choose beef that has less than 10 grams of fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per 100 grams.

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Whether or not you choose to include beef in your diet, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends varying your protein choices to include lean meats, poultry, and fish, as well as plant-based proteins such as legumes, nuts and seeds.

Morris, C. (2021, August 4). Check the label and bring it to the table – USDA grade labels explained. USDA. https://bit.ly/3R0lACj

Shahbandeh, M. (2022, July 12). Breakdown of sales of the fresh meat department in the United States in 2021, by type. Statistical. https://bit.ly/3AdDXNl

Smith is a Nutrition and Wellness Educator for the University of Illinois Extension, McLean County. Contact her at 309-663-8306.