stock photo: beef fillet by robyn mackenzie
Beef Buying Guide
Beef is a healthful source of protein. Learn about beef quality grades and the most nutritional cuts.
By: Barbara Bowman, GourmetSleuth.com
Article by: Barbara Bowman
So What Is Good About Beef?
According to Dr. Agatston, cardiologist and author of the South Beach Diet, eating lean protein helps to curb hunger while allowing your body to maintain muscle mass. At about 55 calories per ounce, lean beef is an excellent source of this protein.
As with any food, you want to purchase the best product you can afford and purchase from reputable sources. As it happens, many of the leanest cuts of beef are some of the less expensive cuts. Some of these cuts may require, longer, slower cooking methods but they will provide you with a very good tasting and healthful meal.
Get More From Grass Fed Beef
Grass fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids and lower "bad fats" than grain fed beef. Grass fed beef may be more expensive so you may want to adjust your portion sizes and spend more for higher quality meats.
Meat grading is a voluntary system used as a guideline to identify the tenderness, marbling and overall palatability of the meat. Lower grades of meat are not less nutritious and often tend to be leaner and better for you. In order of best first, here are the common consumer grades:
- U.S. Prime - best grade of beef which comes from steers, heifers or young bulls. This is a small percentage of the meat that is produced in the U.S. Most of this goes to restaurants.
- U.S. Choice - Less marbling than prime, choice cuts can come from steers, heifers, cows or young bulls. Used in restaurants as well as consumer retail.
- U.S. Select - The least expensive of the common grades, usually leaner, less marbled meats. Select cuts come from the same animals as choice cuts.
Another factor to consider when purchasing meat is the country of origin. In the U.S. grocery stores, warehouse stores and meat markets must display the country of origin of all fresh meats and fish. It is not illegal to sell meat from outside the U.S. but it does need to be properly labeled. See sources section for links to the USDA country of origin labeling laws.
Whenever possible it is best to buy local-bred and slaughtered animals. Look for grass fed, pasture-raised meats from ranchers that will cut to order for you. This may require you purchase 1/4 to 1/2 a steer. See sources.
Cattle may be given either synthetic or natural hormones to increase beef production. Implants are placed on the inside of the animal's ear which allows the hormone to be time-released into the body. The law states that there can be up to 1% residual hormones in the beef we eat.
One of the major concerns is that the hormones may be causing girls to enter puberty more quickly and may be causing an increase in breast cancer. (Read more)
The USDA has approved certain classes of antibiotics which can be used to either prevent or treat disease in cattle. There is a required withdrawal period before the cattle can be slaughtered and there should be no residual antibiotic in the meat. USDA does intermittent testing of meat samples to check for antibiotics. Sadly there are not enough inspectors to inspect all the meat in production so you have to "hope" the meat is OK for consumption.
Does This Matter?
Common sense would dictate that the less our foods are tampered with, the better. Just as eating fresh foods are better for you than processed, we should strive to have meats which are raised in humane conditions and with the least amount unnecessary drugs. We highly suggest looking for hormone and antibiotic-free beef.
Best Cuts For Lean Protein
Here is a short list of lean cuts of meat. You can also do a "visual inspection" and watch for meats with only small amounts of visible fat running though the meat or fat which can be eliminated by closer trimming. Dr. Agatston suggests looking for meats with 10 g or less of total fat and 4.5 g or less of saturated fat per 100 g portion.
- Bottom round
- Eye of round
- Top round
- Tenderloin (filet mignon)
- Top loin
- Sirloin steak
- Flank steak
- London broil
Additionally we've provided a chart showing a comparison between lean beef, pork and poultry.
| Cut |
| Calories || Total Fat || Protein|| Cholesterol |
|Top sirloin steak, lean only || 4oz|| 240 || 11g || 33g|| 83mg |
| Pork sirloin, roasted or broiled || 4oz|| 214 || 9g || 30g || 92mg |
| Chicken breast, boneless, skinless, roasted|| 4oz|| 187 || 4g ||35g ||96mg|
Best Sources For Quality Beef
Local Farm Raised
If possible buy from locally raised beef which has been pasture-raised and grass fed, and organic. We added the "if possible" qualifier knowing that these prices are most likely higher and the product less available. Again, purchase the best you can afford.
If you have freezer space, go in with a neighbor or two and buy 1/4 to a half steer. The beef will come to you professionally wrapped. Just label and date it, freeze and use. Keep an inventory list of the meat on or near the freezer and mark it off as you use it. This way you'll know what you have to work with. Typically you can specify the cut's you'd like (more steaks vs roasts, etc).
Big Box Stores
Stores like Costco can be a very good source for meats. They have a larger buying populations and the meat "turnover" is fast. Small local markets may have meats sitting around longer. Make sure to pay attention to the country of origin. Watch the labeling and find grass-fed when it is available. You can go online and purchase "meat assortments" including a variety of cuts which are grass-fed and organic.
Beware of large chain stores with very low-cost meats. Sometimes the meats are imported from countries with lower quality and cleanliness standards.
Whole Foods Markets
The Whole Foods Market chain participates in the 5-Step Animal Welfare program to insure the humane treatment of livestock. Still watch the labels, not all meats are grass fed or organic.
Meat Trim Levels
While there are standards for meat "trim" make sure to watch for overly thick fat along the edges of the meat. Excess fat that you're just going to throw away is a waste of money. Watch for stores that 'beef' up the weight of their cuts by leaving excessive fat on the meat.