Beef Buying Guide

beef steak with green beans and sauce
photo credit: tobi

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.

Do Meat Grades Matter?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Country Of Origin

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.

Hormones
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)

Antibiotics
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
  • T-bone 
  • 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 Portion 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).  ** See update to sources 2/23/17 for a new option to buy "shares" in grass fed beef from Washington State. U.S.

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.

Nutrition Information For Beef Buying Guide

Serving Size
1 steak
 
Calories
712
Calories from Fat
252
 
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 28g
40%
Saturated Fat 12g
20%
Cholesterol 188mg
60%
Sodium 218mg
10%
Potassium
1341g
40%
Total Carbohydrate 0g
0%
Dietary Fiber 0g
0%
Sugars 0g
Protein 107g
210%
 
Vitamin A  0% Vitamin C  0%
Calcium  0% Iron  0%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

More Beef Terms

Natural
The USDA states that any fresh meat can be defined as "natural"  as long as it does not contain "any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient".  Further, if the term natural is used, it must be followed by a short statement defining their term.

Grass Fed
The term typically means that the cattle were allowed to graze primarily on natural forage throughout their life.  However, some producers still "fatten" the cattle the last few months on grain. Some producers may feed "confined" animals grass, so look for pasture raised AND grass fed (read more about grass fed beef).

Pasture-Raised
This means the cattle has lived its life on pasture land and lot confined to a lot.  

Organic
USDA requires that in order for beef to be labeled organic it must not be given any hormones or antibiotics. Additional, ranches must be inspected. All organic products must be free of "synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used". Read more about Organic Meat Certification from the USDA.

More Beef Articles

Beef Yields Per Steer - This page will show you an approximate yield to expect from an average steer.

Make Your Own Ground Beef - Learn how to easily make your own great quality fresh ground beef.

Ground Beef Consumer's Buying Guide - Read our Consumer's guide to buying ground beef. You may not want to make your own so read our tips for purchasing the best quality product.

Sources

  • USDA - Country of origin labeling.
  • Dr. Agatston - South Beach Diet
  • Local Raised Beef - buy local beef and store in your freezer. 
  • Find Local Raised Beef - Eatwild.com helps you find local sources for hormone-free, antibiotic-free, natural meats.
  • Beef Farm To Table - USDA page answers questions about beef production and handling in the U.S. including using hormones and antibiotics.
  • Food Safety - Use of hormones in beef production

Update February 2017 - Crowd Cow Grass Fed Beef Delivered To Your Door

A new company, Crowd Cow is located in Washington State, U.S.  You can purchase "shares" of a whole beef without having to co-ordinate sharing with buyers.  The company does all the work for you and ships direct to you for only $12.99.  You can buy as little or as much as you'd like.  It's all grass fed from ranches with sustainable practices.

author

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.