Inside the Meat Case
The Kindest Cut
A 10-Step Guide to Meat & Poultry
by Jayne Hurley & Bonnie Liebman, October 2010
How many calories in that cereal? How much sodium in that soup? For nearly two decades, Nutrition Facts labels have answered those questions…except in the one section of the supermarket where you might need them the most.
In the fresh meat and poultry case, you’re pretty much on your own. Exceptions: Most ground meat and poultry has Nutrition Facts (along with deceptive lean claims). And a few companies put Nutrition Facts on brand-name meats or poultry voluntarily.
Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a disappointing solution. Supermarkets would have to provide Nutrition Facts on all fresh meat and poultry, but not necessarily on labels, where shoppers need them. Instead, stores could put up a poster or offer a brochure, notebook, leaflet, or whatever. Thanks so much.
In fact, many stores already have those posters. But odds are, you haven’t noticed them. In some cases they’re above or on the sides of the meat case. And even if your vision were sharp enough to read the fine print, the cuts on the posters don’t always match what the store is selling. So good luck with that.
If you’d like to urge the USDA to require Nutrition Facts on meat and poultry packages, print out and mail the coupon below. In the meantime, here’s a guide to the meat case.
Information compiled by Danielle Hazard and Melissa Pryputniewicz.
1. Check the serving size.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that a typical serving of steak, roasts, chops, and poultry parts is just 3 ounces. That’s about the size of the patty in a Mc- Donald’s Quarter Pounder (which starts out as 4 ounces of raw meat).
A 3 oz. serving may be what health authorities recommend, but typical? What planet is the USDA living on?
Even diets designed to lower bad cholesterol, like the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), use a more realistic 4 ounces of cooked meat. But if you want real realistic, look at typical servings at midpriced restaurants. A chicken breast weighs 6 to 8 ounces cooked and steaks range from 8 to 16 ounces raw (6 to 12 ounces cooked).
So before you check the calories, saturated fat, or anything else, estimate your serving size. If you buy a pound of meat or poultry for every two people, that’s 8 ounces of raw meat—or 6 ounces of cooked meat—per serving. If you divide the pound into three servings, it’s 4 ounces of cooked meat per serving. That’s the serving size we list in our chart on p. 15.
2. Pick an extra lean cut.
Ounce for ounce, chicken breast meat has less fat than drumstick meat, which has less fat than wing meat, which has less fat than thigh meat.
But the difference between low-fat and fatty matters more for red meat. Pick a fattier chicken piece like a skinless thigh and your 4 oz. cooked serving ends up with 3.5 grams of saturated fat. Pick a fatty beef cut like chuck blade roast with a ¹/8" fat trim and you’re up to 12.5 grams of sat fat.
And more fat means more calories. A 4 oz. cooked serving of prime rib has 410 calories. The same size serving of eye of round roast has only 240.
A “lean” cut of steak or roast can be no more than 10 percent fat, and an “extra lean” cut can be no more than 5 percent fat, according to the USDA. However, very few fresh meat packages carry those claims.
What’s more, which cuts are “lean” or “extra lean” depends on how much they’re trimmed. And the meat industry assumes that consumers are world-class trimmers.
3. Trim and skin.
The beef industry likes to boast about its “29 Lean Cuts”—round steak, sirloin, and other cuts “that meet the government labeling guidelines for lean,” according to beefitswhatsfordinner.com.
But the meats in the list have had all of their “visible fat trimmed.” And about half have been so meticulously trimmed around the edges and elsewhere by scalpel-wielding technicians that even fatty cuts like T-bone, tenderloin roast, and brisket end up “lean.”
The rest of the “29 Lean Cuts” have a 0" trim, which means that the technicians only removed every scrap of fat around the edges.
Since most consumers don’t trim with a scalpel, a more reasonable trim is ¹/8" fat. That’s what you’ll find for most meats in our chart. In most cases, meats with a 1/8" trim are the fattiest listed by the USDA, which gets its numbers from acthe meat industry.
In fact, for some popular cuts—like tritip, chuck eye steak, flank steak, flat iron steak, and ribeye steak—the USDA’s Web site only has numbers for 0" trim. One look at the ribeye on page 13 tells you how silly that is.
When it comes to pork, the USDA’s Web site doesn’t even say if its numbers apply to 0" fat, 1/8" fat, or any other trim. How convenient. (Our chart uses older USDA numbers for pork with a 1/8" trim.)
Some good news: It doesn’t matter if the fat is gone before you cook, as long as it’s gone before you eat. So if you don’t buy skinless poultry or ask the butcher to trim your meat, skin and trim at home.
4. Select "select."
Prime beef is the fattiest. Select is the leanest. Choice is in the middle.
If you want to save some saturated fat, calories, and money, look for select (when you can find it). Just keep in mind that, since select beef has less fat, you’ll want to cook it either hot and fast (a quick sauté, for example) or low and slow (like a stew or pot roast, which keeps in the moisture).
5. Watch out for "80% lean" ground beef
Beware of ground beef labels. They list not just the “% fat,” but the “% lean” as well. To most people, the word “lean” means low-fat. But ground beef that’s “70% lean” is the fattiest ground beef allowed on the market. And even ground beef that’s 80% or 85% lean is still fatty.
Who needs a label to say “80% lean/20% fat” (some labels call it 80/20), when it could just say “20% fat”?
The meat industry. According to a survey commissioned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, publisher of Nutrition Action, consumers are more likely to think that ground beef is low in fat if it’s labeled “80% lean/20% fat” than if it’s just labeled “20% fat.”
That’s why meat producers have fought for 20 years to keep the misleading “percent lean” claims. The industry doesn’t mind putting Nutrition Facts on its packages, as long as it can keep fooling people.
6. Look for ground turkey or chicken breast
If the label simply says “ground turkey” or “ground chicken,” you may be getting meat plus skin. (The skin is part of the bird, after all.)
If you want no fatty skin (or thighs or wings or other parts), look for “ground turkey breast” or “ground chicken breast.” Or check the Nutrition Facts. If a 4 oz. serving (raw) of your ground turkey or chicken has no more than 2 grams of saturated fat, you don’t have to worry about whether it contains skin or fattier meat.
7. Avoid added water or salt
It may look like fresh chicken, turkey, or pork with nothing added. But read the small print. If a chicken label says something like “seasoned with up to 15% chicken broth” or “enhanced with up to 15% solution,” you’re paying chicken prices for water.
What’s more, you may end up with a load of salt. Five ounces of Perdue’s Tender & Tasty line, for example, cooks down to 4 ounces and delivers anywhere from 290 to 410 milligrams of sodium. Other lines that “enhance” their fresh poultry include Tyson Trimmed & Ready, Empire Kosher, and Pilgrim’s Pride EatWell StayHealthy.
Pork can be worse. Some hams and tenderloins are 30 percent salt-and-water. (See cspinet.org/pumpedup.)
8. Choose poultry or fish over red meat.
Last year, researchers at the National Cancer Institute reported the results of the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.1
Of some 500,000 participants, those who ate the most red meat (about 5 ounces a day) were 30 percent more likely to die— mostly of heart disease or cancer—over the next 10 years than those who ate the least red meat (about ²/³ ounce a day).
Those who ate the most white meat (poultry and fish) had a slightly lower risk of dying over a decade than those who ate the least. (The industry calls pork “the other white meat,” but scientists lump pork in with beef, veal, and lamb.)
In other studies, red meat seemed to boost the risk of colon cancer (see June 2009, cover story). Researchers aren’t sure why. Two possibilities: red meat’s heme iron or the mutagens that form when red meat is overcooked may promote tumors.
9. Minimize mutagens.
Don’t overcook your meat or poultry. The browner it is, the more likely that it contains heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which may raise the risk of cancer.
Grilling and barbecuing create the most HCAs, followed by broiling and pan-frying. Baking, roasting, and stir-frying create fewer HCAs, and wet cooking methods (braising, stewing, poaching) generally produce the least.
A few tricks can minimize the HCAs when you grill or barbecue. Marinate the meat or poultry, even for a few minutes. Grill it using indirect heat (push the coals to the sides and cook the meat in the center, or, if you use a gas grill, grill over an unlit element). And flip the food frequently to keep surface temperatures lower.
10. Think of the Earth.
It takes more water to produce beef and pork than any other foods, according to a 2006 report from the United Nations called Livestock’s Long Shadow.2
“In the United States, livestock are responsible for 55 percent of erosion, 37 percent of pesticides applied, 50 percent of the volume of antibiotics consumed and for 32 percent of the nitrogen load and 33 percent of the phosphorus load into freshwater resources,” says the report.
What’s more, livestock account for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions— more than transportation. That’s because cattle emit methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more destructive than carbon dioxide.
Not a vegetarian? Would it kill you to eat like one every once in a while?