By EatingWell Editors
If you love beef there are plenty of good reasons to keep it in your diet. Just be choosy about the cuts you buy—some are lean while others are loaded with fat. Reasonably sized portions of lean cuts of beef are a great source of protein and delicious complement to vegetables. Few foods provide as much zinc, a mineral vital to growth and a healthy immune system. Beef also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy type of fat that, according to preliminary research, may help with weight loss and could play a role in reducing risk for heart disease and maintaining strong bones. Here are some guidelines for choosing the healthiest beef at the supermarket.
Beef is given quality grades determined by the amount of marbling and the age of the animal, both of which affect the tenderness, juiciness and flavor of the meat. The USDA assigns three possible grades: Prime, Choice and Select. Prime meat has the most marbling (fat) within the meat, making it juicy and flavorful but also increasing its fat content (including saturated fat); Select has the least marbling; Choice is in the middle.
In the meat case, fresh beef should be bright red. Vacuum-packaged beef will be maroon because of the lack of oxygen. It should be firm to the touch with little to no excess moisture in the package and the packaging should be in good condition. Finally, be sure to check the “sell-by” date.
Tender cuts in the “loin” category, such as tenderloin, top loin and sirloin, and flavorful cuts like flank and strip steak are lean and best for quick-cooking, dry-heat techniques like sautéing, grilling and broiling. Tough cuts like chuck and round become tender with long, moist-heat cooking, such as stewing or braising. Always trim visible fat from whichever cut of beef you choose.
What Labels Mean
Raised Without Antibiotics: This term indicates that the cow was raised without antibiotics for health maintenance, disease prevention or treatment of disease. Medications not classified as antibiotics may still be used.
No Hormones: Producers that show documentation that they do not use hormones in raising their cows may use this label.
Natural: One of the most widely used labels, the term means that the meat has been minimally processed and doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients or preservatives. “Natural” has absolutely nothing to do with standards of care, type and quality of feed or administration of medications.
Percent Retained Water: To control pathogens like Salmonella, producers must quickly lower the temperature of cows during processing. Most do this by immersing the slaughtered cows in a cold bath, which causes them to absorb water. The USDA requires producers to list the maximum amount of water that may be retained.
Certified Organic: This USDA-regulated term means that all feed given to cows must be certified organic, which means no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, animal by-products or other additives. Cows raised to meet certified organic standards also must have access to pasture.
Certified Humane Raised & Handled: Overseen by a nonprofit endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, this label ensures your cow received basic standards of care. For example, in conditions of extreme heat sun shades and water-cooling systems must be available to cattle. Feed must be fresh. Cattle must have sufficient room to lie down in their normal positions in a clean area.
Refrigerate or freeze beef as soon as possible after purchase. If refrigerating beef, be sure to cook it or freeze it by the “Use By” date on the package. If freezing beef for longer than two weeks, wrap in heavy-duty foil, freezer paper or freezer bags to prevent freezer burn. Frozen beef should be defrosted in the refrigerator, never at room temperature, to prevent bacterial growth.