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Fresh Meatby Nancy Cooper, R.D., C.D.E.
Americans have always loved meat. From colonial times, when wild game was the most plentiful form of meat, to modern times, when raising animals for meat has become an industry, meat has been the focus of the American meal. So great is our hunger for meat that the United States has become one of the world's largest meat-producing and meat-consuming nations.
In recent years, however, the role of meat in the American diet has been questioned amid nutrition recommendations to eat less fat, especially saturated fat, and cholesterol. Vegetarian diets have become more common, and many consumers now consider red meat an unhealthy food. Poultry, on the other hand, has gained popularity because it is lower in fat than many other types of meat. So, while Americans are eating more meat and poultry than ever before (about 175 pounds per person per year), the kind of meat we choose has changed. Beef and pork consumption has declined steadily since 1975, and intake of chicken and turkey has risen. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), today we eat about the same amount of poultry as beef—about 64 pounds per person per year.
As many people are aware, red meat is one of the major sources of fat in the American diet, and eating too much fat has been linked to an increased risk for several diseases, including heart disease and some cancers. In addition, a high-fat diet can promote obesity, which is a risk factor for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
But this is not to say meat is a "bad" food. Through advances in breeding, feeding, and management techniques, the beef cattle and hogs of today are leaner than ever. Meat packers and processors have also helped lower the fat content of meat by trimming the fat surrounding cuts of meat to between 1/8 inch and 1/16 inch, rather than to 1/4 inch, as done in the past. As in anything else, moderation is the key when it comes to eating meat. It is overconsumption of meat that can put health at risk.
Meat and poultry provide many valuable nutrients, including iron, zinc, vitamins B6 and B12, protein, phosphorus, riboflavin, and niacin. Meat can easily be part of a healthy, low-fat diet, especially if you follow these tips:
• Eat small portions of meat, about 3 to 4 ounces at a meal (about the size of a deck of cards). Four to 5 ounces of raw meat cook down to about 3 to 4 ounces.
• Choose lean cuts of meat.
• Substitute chicken and turkey for some of the red meat in your diet.
• Treat meat as a side dish that complements the vegetables, grains, breads, and fruits at a meal.
• Limit fattier cuts of meat, such as prime beef, bacon, sausage, and ribs, to special occasions.
• Trim visible fat from meat and remove the skin from poultry before eating.
• Choose low-fat cooking methods such as grilling, broiling, roasting, poaching, or stir-frying with little added fat.
We've all heard horror stories about food poisoning caused by improperly prepared meat. Luckily, the risks of food poisoning from meat and poultry are virtually eliminated by storing, handling, and cooking them properly. As you handle raw meat or poultry and prepare your dish, keep in mind these important guidelines:
• Keep your refrigerator below 40°F and your freezer at or below 0°F.
• Thoroughly wash your hands, including under your fingernails and between your fingers, with soap and warm water before and after handling raw meat.
• Use a clean dish towel every time you prepare meat.
• Defrost frozen meats in the refrigerator or microwave or in cold water. If you use cold water, change the water frequently or put it in the refrigerator to ensure that the water stays cold. Never thaw meat at room temperature. If you do, the outside will thaw before the inside, leaving the outside susceptible to bacterial growth before the inside is thawed.
• Wash knives, utensils, kitchen counters, and cutting boards thoroughly in hot, soapy water after preparing raw meat and before preparing other foods.
• Marinate meats and poultry in the refrigerator. Keep cooked meat away from the marinade, and do not serve the marinade as a sauce unless it has been boiled for several minutes.
• Use a clean plate for serving cooked meat. Do not put cooked meat on the same plate that previously held the raw meat. Likewise, use clean utensils for serving.
• Keep meat refrigerated until cooking time, and refrigerate leftover cooked meat within an hour of cooking.
• Avoid eating raw meat. Steak tartare may be considered a delicacy, but it is dangerous to eat.
Today's beef is 27% leaner than it was 25 years ago, thanks to leaner animals and closer trimming of the fat. To choose a low-fat piece of beef, you will need to consider both grade and cut.
Grading is a voluntary process established by the USDA. For a fee, government graders evaluate beef quality by looking at the amount of marbling (flecks of fat within the lean tissue), the texture of the meat, and its color and appearance. Marbling gives beef juiciness, tenderness, and flavor, so the grading system rewards fatty beef by giving it the highest grade—prime—followed by choice and select. Beef graded below select is not usually found in grocery stores; it is used in processed meat products. (Note: Grading is not the same as inspection. The USDA inspects all meat to ensure that it is clean and safe.)
Select grade beef has 5% to 20% less fat than choice beef of the same cut, and 40% less fat than prime. It is generally less juicy, tender, and flavorful as a result, but with moist methods of cooking and proper carving (against the grain) these cuts can be very tasty. Unlike the amount of fat, the amount of nutrients does not vary from one grade to the next. Because grading is voluntary and costs the meat packer money, some of the beef in supermarkets is ungraded. Ungraded beef is not necessarily lower quality than graded beef. In fact, ungraded beef found in supermarkets would typically be graded choice or select had the meat packer decided to grade the beef.
The cut indicates the part of the animal from which a piece of meat comes, and some parts are fattier than others. Select grade beef of one cut may have more fat than choice beef of a different cut. For example, 3 1/2 ounces of select chuck roast has about 14 grams of fat, while the same amount of choice top round has only 6 grams of fat.
Slaughtered beef cattle are first divided into primal cuts, which include chuck, sirloin, round, brisket and flank. Primal cuts are further divided into retail cuts, which are what you find in the store. There are at least 300 different retail cuts of beef, and a meat counter may display 50 or more of them. (Meat labels will always list both the primal and retail cut names.)
The following lean cuts of beef have about 9 grams of fat per 3 1/2-ounce portion: top round, eye of round, round tip, sirloin, tenderloin, top loin, and flank steak. Fattier cuts of beef include most chuck cuts and cuts from the short plate, including skirt steak (the preferred meat for fajitas) and short ribs. Look for cuts with little marbling and external fat. If your store has a butcher, you can have him or her trim away the excess fat.
Most ground beef comes from the chuck, sirloin, or round. Packages are labeled by cut, fat content, or both. Ground beef labeled 75% lean is 25% fat by weight, not by calories. Because fat has more than two times the calories of protein, a patty made from this beef would derive 64% of its calories from fat when cooked. Lean ground beef is 21% fat by weight when raw and gets 61% of its calories from fat when cooked. Extra-lean ground beef is 17% fat by weight when raw and gets 57% of its calories from fat when cooked.
To get the leanest ground beef, buy a lean cut of sirloin or round and have the butcher trim it of all external fat and grind it for you. You can also grind it yourself using a meat grinder or food processor. When buying packaged ground beef, look for the highest percent lean label on the package.
Cut and grade are good indicators of fat content, but they don't help you recognize fresh meat. Check the freshness date on the label, and choose meat with the latest "sell by" date. Fresh beef has creamy white fat, not yellow fat, and feels springy to the touch. Fresh beef is typically a bright red color; older beef will have a browner color.
Beef is very perishable and should be stored in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Keep the meat in its original wrapping and use within a few days. To keep it longer, wrap it in freezer paper or freezer wrap, date it, label it, and freeze it. Roasts and steaks will keep for six to twelve months, and ground beef for two to three months.
Veal comes from young calves. Considered a specialty food in the Unites States, it has a delicate flavor and light texture. Americans eat less than one pound of veal per person per year, but in parts of Europe, veal is eaten as often as beef is eaten in the United States.
Veal is similar in fat content to some of the leanest cuts of beef—3 1/2 ounces of trimmed roasted veal sirloin, for example, has around 6 grams of fat. A lean leg of veal has only 3 grams of fat per 3 1/2 ounces—about the same as a skinless chicken breast. Although the cuts of veal are similar to those of beef, there are fewer of them. The top round, leg cutlet, arm steak, sirloin steak, loin chop, rib chop, and scallops made from the leg are the leanest cuts. Ground veal is a lean alternative to ground beef, especially if the meat is from the leg or shoulder.
When buying veal, look for light pink, fine-grained meat with little marbling. Any fat should be firm and white. Store veal as you would beef; when frozen and wrapped in a moisture-proof freezer paper or wrap, it will keep up to six to nine months.
Pork has had an unfavorable reputation for many years because so many pork products, including bacon, sausage, spareribs, and hot dogs, are high in fat. According to the USDA, Americans' consumption of pork has declined steadily over the past 25 years; today we eat an average of 46 pounds per person per year, which is almost one-third less than our beef intake. Yet recent research has shown that fresh pork is 31% leaner than it was in 1983. With selective breeding, pork producers have changed the fat and muscle composition of hogs, producing leaner animals over the past decades. Modern ways of feeding and raising have also contributed to the pig's leaner form.
Pork is an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc. In addition, pork has slightly less saturated fat than beef. Guidelines for including pork in the diet are similar to those for beef: Choose lean cuts, eat small portions, and trim visible fat. As with beef, there are leaner cuts and higher-fat cuts to choose from, but don't look for grades on pork to give you a clue about the fat content. Because pork is more consistent in quality than beef, it is not graded.
Like beef, pork is divided into primal wholesale cuts, which are named for the part of the animal they come from, and is further divided into the retail cuts that you find in your supermarket. For fresh pork, the cut determines the fat content. Cuts that provide less than 9 grams of fat per 3-ounce cooked portion include pork tenderloin (the leanest cut of pork), sirloin chop, loin roast, loin chop, sirloin roast, rib chop, and rib roast.
Only one-third of the pork produced in the United States each year is sold fresh; the remainder is cured, smoked, or processed. Historically, curing was used to preserve meat so it would last through the winter. Today, pork is cured for flavor. Because two of the main ingredients used in curing are salt and sodium nitrite (which has been linked to cancer development), cured pork products can be high in sodium. Bacon, Canadian bacon, and ham are popular forms of cured pork, with Canadian bacon and ham being leaner than bacon.
When shopping for fresh pork, look for cuts that are well trimmed of fat and meat that is pinkish to gray-pink in color (An exception to this rule is pork tenderloin, which is deep red in color.) The fat should be creamy white, and any bones should be red and spongy at the ends. (The whiter the bone end, the older the animal was when it was slaughtered and the less tender the meat will be.) When choosing cured pork products, be sure to read the label for nutrition information as well as cooking and storage tips.
Refrigerate fresh pork in the original wrapper and use within two to three days. Frozen pork chops and roasts will last four to six months. Cured pork products will last up to a week in the refrigerator once they are opened or cut. Frozen, fully cooked hams will keep one to two months.
While lamb is the principal meat eaten in parts of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India, Americans consume only about one pound per person per year. As with beef and pork, modern breeding and feeding methods have improved lamb's taste and texture, and the meat is also leaner due to close trimming of the external fat. Lamb is graded prime, choice, or good. Most of the lamb in supermarkets is choice, which is comparable to choice beef in its content of fat, protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. However, the grading of lamb is not based on marbling. High-grade lamb has thick, well-shaped muscles in the loin and rib cuts.
Lamb has fewer retail cuts than beef. Leaner cuts, such as the foreshank and parts of the leg, are generally less tender than cuts from areas where the muscles are used very little, such as the loin and rib. However, because lambs are smaller, younger animals than beef cattle, even lean cuts are more tender than corresponding cuts of beef. Lean cuts of lamb (with less than 10 grams of fat in a 3 1/2-ounce cooked portion) include the shank half leg roast or hind shank, loin chops, arm chops, and foreshank.
Prepackaged lamb is usually dated for freshness, so check the label. Other signs of freshness include firm, pinkish-red meat (lamb darkens with age), bones that are moist and reddish at the joint, and creamy white fat. As with other meats, store lamb in the coldest part of the refrigerator in its original wrapping. As a rule, the larger the cut, the longer it keeps. Whole roasts will stay fresh up to five days; chops and steaks, for two to four days; and ground or cubed lamb, one to two days. If frozen, larger cuts will last six to nine months, and smaller cuts can be frozen for three to four months.
In the United States, chicken consumption has risen steadily since the 1940's, when changes in breeding and marketing made it more affordable. The price of chicken today, when adjusted for inflation, is only one-third of its price in the early 1960's.
But price is not the only reason we consume so much chicken. To reduce fat in their diets, many Americans have decided to eat less red meat and more poultry. Cooked skinless light chicken meat is 33% to 80% leaner than cooked beef, depending on the beef's cut and grade. Yet chicken is comparable to beef in quantity of protein, vitamins, and minerals (except that beef has slightly more iron and zinc). Still, not all chicken is created equal: A 3 1/2-ounce cooked portion of white meat without skin contains about 4 grams of fat, while the same size portion of skinless dark meat has close to 10 grams of fat. Skinless dark chicken meat supplies the same amount of fat as light meat with skin. Dark meat with the skin is the fattiest combination of all, with about 16 grams of fat per 3 1/2-ounce roasted portion.
As with beef, chicken is graded for quality by the USDA only if the processor requests it and pays a fee. As a result, you often find ungraded chicken for sale. Graded chicken is most likely to be grade A; lower-quality chicken is grade B or C and is usually sold for use in packaged and processed products. The fat content is not the criteria for grading chicken. Instead, chicken is graded based on characteristics such as shape, presence of feathers, and unbroken skin.
Over 50% of the chicken sold in the United States is purchased in parts (breasts, drumsticks, wings, and thighs). Whole chickens can also be purchased and come in several varieties. Broilers or fryers are all-purpose birds that weigh 2 1/2 to 5 pounds; roasters are slightly older and larger than broilers or fryers, weighing 3 1/2 to 6 pounds; capons are male chickens weighing 9 1/2 to 10 1/2 pounds; Rock Cornish hens weigh 1 to 2 pounds and are perfect for one or two servings; stewing chickens are mature hens weighing 4 to 6 pounds with flavorful but tough meat; and free-range chickens are chickens that have been allowed outside instead of being raised entirely indoors.
To buy fresh chicken, check the "sell by" date on the package. This date is the last recommended date of sale, but the meat may remain fresh for two to three days more if properly refrigerated. If the "sell by" date is near, don't buy the chicken unless you're sure you'll use it soon. If the chicken has a peculiar smell, don't buy it no matter when the "sell by" date is. Whole chickens should have a plump, rounded breast, and chicken parts should be moist and plump. The color of the skin will vary from white to yellow, depending on the breed of chicken and its diet. (Skin color is not related to quality.) Frozen chicken should be rock-hard and show no ice crystals or freezer burn.
Fresh chicken is highly perishable and should be refrigerated immediately. Store it in the original wrapper and be sure any juices that leak from the package do not leak onto other foods. If you purchase a whole chicken, store the giblets separately because they will spoil before the meat. Fresh chicken keeps for two to three days; frozen chicken can be kept for nine to twelve months.
Trim the fat off chicken before cooking, but leave the skin on to keep the meat moist. (An insignificant amount of fat is transferred to the meat from the skin during cooking.)
Long the favorite meat for holiday feasts, turkey is becoming a regular part of the diet for more and more people. Skinless turkey breast is one of the leanest of all meats, supplying just a few grams of fat per 3 1/2-ounce cooked serving. These days, you don't have to buy a whole bird. Consumers can purchase the parts they prefer, such as breasts, cutlets, thighs, and drumsticks. Convenience and nutrition have contributed to a 133% increase in U.S. turkey consumption over the past 20 years.
As with chicken, almost all of turkey's fat is found in the skin. However, eating cooked turkey breast with the skin would still only furnish about 8 grams of fat per 3 1/2 ounces because the meat is so lean. Dark meat without skin has about 7 grams of fat per 3 1/2-ounce serving, and with the skin, it has about 12 grams of fat per 3 1/2 ounces. Turkey is high in nutrients such as protein, the B vitamins, iron, and zinc.
Most turkeys found in the supermarket are either fryer/roasters (the youngest and most tender, weighing 5 to 9 pounds), hens (female turkeys weighing 8 to 18 pounds), or toms (male turkeys weighing up to 24 pounds). Ground turkey, especially if it is made from light meat, is a tasty, leaner alternative to ground beef. (The same is true of ground chicken.) Packaged ground turkey may also contain dark meat and be higher in fat; check the ingredients label to see which parts are used.
Like other meats, turkey is graded by the USDA only if the processor requests it and pays a fee. Like grade A chicken, grade A turkey is well-shaped, free of feathers, and has a layer of fat with unbroken outer skin. When buying fresh turkey, check the "sell by" date and do not buy turkey with a date that is too near. When buying a whole bird, be sure to select one that will fit in your oven. And beware of self-basting birds—many basting solutions contain large amounts of oil or butter in addition to seasonings and broth.
Fresh turkey should be stored in the same manner as other meats—in the coldest part of the refrigerator in the original wrapping—and used within two days. Store the giblets separately, and make sure the turkey juices do not leak onto other foods. Frozen turkey parts can be kept six to nine months; a whole frozen bird will keep up to a year, but remember that you do not know how long it stayed in the store's freezer before you bought it.
The accompanying table (see top of the page) lists information on calories, calories from fat, fat, saturated fat, sodium, and protein for various cuts of meat and poultry. To make sure the nutrients in your meat match what's listed in the table, trim all meat of visible fat and use the cooking method indicated.