If you’re like most Americans, meat likely plays a major role in at least one of your daily meals. That’s why you need to focus on purchasing the most healthful cuts of meat you can find (and afford) at the supermarket. While the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA’s) new food plate (which replaces the food pyramid) recommends that at least three-quarters of your plate contain fruits and vegetables and grains, there’s still a designated spot for lean cuts of beef, pork and poultry. Choose wisely when shopping for meat and poultry and you can really boost the nutrition of your meals, without pushing fat and calories over the limit.
Meat, poultry and your health
Meat and poultry supply high-quality complete protein, minerals (especially iron and zinc), and B vitamins (especially B6 and B12). Some of these nutrients can be hard to get from other sources (B12 is found only in animal products, so strict vegetarians need to take a supplement). Moreover, meat and poultry contribute heme iron, the form of iron that’s best absorbed by the body. And most of the zinc you get in your diet comes from meat.
The bulk of research, however, suggests that centering meals on animal protein is not a healthful way to eat. Meat can be high in saturated fat, which can raise blood cholesterol, particularly LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Moreover, numerous studies have linked meat-centered diets to a higher risk of cancer, such as breast and colon cancers; whether this is due to the saturated fat content of meat is not entirely clear. It is known, however, that cured (processed) meats—bacon, salami and ham, for example—raise the risk of stomach, lung, esophageal and other cancers.
This doesn’t mean that you need to be a vegetarian, but as a general rule it’s a good move to shift away from a meat-based diet toward one where plant foods occupy most of the plate. More specifically, when you eat meat and poultry, you should limit the portion to 3 or 4 ounces—about the size of a deck of cards. Besides eating smaller portions, another way to cut down on the saturated fat is to buy lean cuts, trim any visible fat and avoid eating the skin on poultry.
Understanding meat and poultry products
First, you should know which cuts of meat are leanest, and you should understand how meat is graded. In general, the leanest cuts have round or loin in their names (for example, top round, bottom round, top sirloin, tenderloin). To be labeled “lean,” a 3.5-ounce serving must provide less than 10 grams of total fat and no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat. An “extra-lean” label means there is less than 5 grams of total fat and no more than 2 grams of saturated fat.
Meats graded “Prime” have the most marbling, which means they are the most tender but also the fattiest and most caloric (these cuts are typically only seen in top restaurants). “Choice” cuts have less fat and marbling (and make up most of what you see in the supermarket). “Select” is the leanest grade. (When buying poultry, the USDA grade is not helpful, as most of what you’ll find in the market is “Grade A”—a designation that has little to do with fat content.)
Among the leanest cuts?
- Beef: eye of round, top round, sirloin, top loin, tenderloin
- Pork: tenderloin, top loin, sirloin, loin chop, rib chop
- Lamb: leg of lamb, arm, loin
Other meats that are generally lean include bison (also called buffalo), venison, emu, ostrich and goat. With poultry, the white meat (breast) is leanest, but not if you eat the skin, which contributes as much as 75 percent of the fat and 50 percent of the calories in a piece of chicken.
Ground meat and poultry have their own set of shopping guidelines. An “80 percent lean” designation on ground beef, for example, does not mean that only 20 percent of the total is fat. That’s because the percentage is by weight, and some of that weight is water. It would be more realistic to label meat by how much fat it contains as a percentage of calories. You might be surprised to find out that only 97 percent lean ground beef (which is hard to find) meets the government standard for a low-fat food (less than 3 grams of fat per serving).
Ground poultry is often used as a substitute for ground beef, but be aware that “ground turkey” is much higher in fat than “ground turkey breast” because the fattier dark meat and skin may be mixed in.
Meat and poultry: good-to-know facts
All meat and poultry can harbor potentially harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella. But ground meat is particularly risky because if it is contaminated, the bacteria can be present throughout the meat—not just on the surface, as in a steak. Cooking the outside of a burger patty well is not protection enough: You need to cook the meat well all the way through to be sure of killing all bacteria.
To keep it safe, refrigerate all meat and poultry promptly when you get home from the market, and watch out for juices that may drip from the packages.
To prevent cross-contamination, use one set of knives and cutting boards for vegetables and other raw foods and another for meat and poultry. The same goes for raw and cooked meat and poultry. Don’t use the same surfaces and utensils for both. Do not wash poultry before cooking—you’ll only contaminate the sink if bacteria are present. Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat. Use a meat thermometer to test for doneness—you’ll be safe from foodborne illness and less likely to dry out the meat or poultry by overcooking it.
Recommended temperatures (in degrees Fahrenheit/Celsius):
- Beef, veal and lamb (steaks, roasts—medium rare): 145°F/63°C
- Beef, veal and lamb (steaks, roasts—medium): 160°F/71°C
- Pork (steaks, roasts, chops): 145°F/63°C, with the addition of a three-minute “rest time” after removal from the heat source (a little pink is okay as long as the correct temperature is reached)
- Poultry (including ground chicken and turkey): 165°F/74°C
- Ground meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb): 160°F/71°C
Healthy grocery shopping tips for meat and poultry
- Look for “round” or “loin” in the name of cuts of beef, pork or lamb.
- Buy “Choice” grade meats (for grilling or roasting) or “Select” grade meats (for stews or to marinate).
- Buy at least 85 percent lean ground beef, but only if you are going to brown the meat first and then discard the fat drippings. Otherwise, buy 90 or 95 percent lean.
- Look for ground turkey breast (not simply ground turkey) as a lower-fat substitute for ground beef or pork.
- Be careful of “enhanced” poultry, which has been injected with saltwater to plump it up. A 4-ounce serving may have as much as 400 milligrams of sodium, compared to only 50 to 70 milligrams in untreated poultry. There is no way to wash off the salt as it has been mechanically forced into the flesh. Due to a labeling loophole, salt-injected poultry may still be called “natural,” so it’s important to always check the labels.
- Pay extra for special labels only if the designations have significance to you and if there are regulations to support their integrity.
One sure way to cut your carbon emissions is to eat less meat. Compared to growing plant foods, meat and poultry production uses far more resources and produces far more carbon emissions. Beef is the most environmentally expensive food of all.
Published August 15, 2013