Smith: Understanding labeling on beef products | Food and Cooking

While some consumers are shifting to more plant-based proteins and sustainable alternatives, others are not yet ready to completely abandon meat, including beef.

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

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef based on the maturity of the animal and marbling, which is the white strip of fat in the meat. The top three grades are US Prime, US Choice, and US Select.

Higher rated beef will likely be from a younger animal with a generous amount of marbling. Prime beef typically has the highest amount of fat and is best prepared using dry heat methods such as roasting or grilling. While 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 class. It is generally tender but has less marbling than Prime. It can be prepared with both dry and wet heat. US Select tends to be the least expensive while also being the leanest and healthiest of the three options, but since it’s less juicy and flavorful, using moist heat cooking methods like braising or braising works best.

While grading can help determine the beef’s nutritional value, economic value, and optimal cooking methods, the grading system is voluntary and therefore is not provided on every package. If there is no grade, just choose beef with more red color and less marbling. Flank steak, strip steak, sirloin, tenderloin, and top round or eye of round roasts and steaks are typically lean options. Trim off any visible fat and use a meat tenderizer or marinade if needed to break up tough tissue and fibers.

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Many cuts of meat must either have a label with nutritional information attached to the package or have the information available on signs, posters or brochures. If there is a label with nutritional information, 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 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 like legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Morris, C. (2021, August 4). Check the label and take it to the declared USDA class labels. USDA.

Shahbandeh, M. (2022, July 12). Distribution of sales of fresh meat departments in the United States in 2021, by type. Statistics.

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

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