The United States was once a nation of confirmed beef eaters, but no longer. In part, concern about saturated fat and the role it plays in heart disease, obesity, and cancer has steered many people away from beef.
Today’s beef isn’t as fatty as that of years past. Noting the preference for low-fat protein, ranchers are crossbreeding traditional breeds with leaner, larger cattle—as well as bison. In addition, cattle are being fed more grass and less corn, and are being sent to market younger so that they will develop less fat. And meatpackers and retailers are trimming more external fat, leaving about 1/8 inch, down from 3/4 inch a decade ago.
Beef can be a part of a low-fat diet if you follow three simple steps. Choose lean cuts of beef, eat small portions (3 to 4 ounces, cooked), and trim all visible fat before cooking.
Beef is an excellent source of iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, nutrients that can be hard for some people to obtain elsewhere. You don’t need to eat slabs of steak or roast to get the nutritional benefits beef has to offer. Furthermore, trimming the fat has no effect on the vitamin and mineral quality of the meat. Whether the meat is lean or fatty, the levels of these nutrients are about the same.
For a full list of nutrients, see Beef in the National Nutrient Database.
Cuts and grades of beef
Beef’s fat content is widely variable, and only the leanest pieces are as low in fat as broiled fish or skinless chicken. There are two factors to consider when choosing low-fat beef: grade and cut. Grading is a voluntary service established by the USDA and offered to slaughterhouses. Government inspectors evaluate beef carcasses in terms of their marbling, the white streaks or specks of fat within the flesh itself that help give meat its juiciness and distinct flavor. Ironically, the system rewards the production of fatty beef. The cuts with the most marbling are given the highest grade, Prime, followed by Choice and Select.
On average, a cut of beef graded Select has 5 to 20 percent less fat than Choice beef of the same cut, and 40 percent less fat than Prime. Since grading is not compulsory and costs the meatpacker money, much of the beef in the supermarket is ungraded. This ungraded beef is usually sold under the store’s brand and is often a commercial grade, just below Select. Of the beef that is graded, Choice is the most common designation.
Perhaps more important than grade when determining fat content is cut, which refers to the part of the animal from which a piece of meat comes. It’s not uncommon for Select-grade beef of one cut to have more fat than Choice beef of another cut.
Hamburgers and food safety
Hamburger lovers have it rough: If they like their burgers rare, there’s the risk of food poisoning. If well-done, there’s the problem of potentially carcinogenic compounds (called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs), formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures, as in panfrying, broiling, or barbecuing. But scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have found two ways to reduce the risk of HCAs:
- Flip burgers every minute while panfrying. They’ll cook faster, and as much as 90 percent fewer HCAs will be produced. This also kills any bacteria, while leaving the burgers moister.
- Precook burgers in a microwave before frying. This also reduces HCA levels greatly, compared to burgers that are simply fried, and reduces fat content by 30 percent. Microwave the patties for one to three minutes, pour off the liquid, then panfry the patties. This removes substances that form the HCAs when meat is fried.
Published June 23, 2016