By Janet Helm, MS, RD
Starting today, you’ll have a new way to help you make smart choices at the meat counter. For the first time ever, nutrition labels will be required on fresh meats. So now when you pick up a package of ground beef you can learn a lot more about what’s beneath that cellophane than simply whether or not it’s 80% lean (does anyone even know what that really means?) Now ground beef labels must list the total grams of fat and saturated fat per serving, along with calories, calories from fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein, and other nutrients. It’s a new rule enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that begins in March.
The meat industry was voluntarily providing nutrition information – and you may have seen a poster with these numbers where you shop. But USDA determined that not enough stores were complying so they made it mandatory. Yes, we’ve had nutrition labels on processed meats like hot dogs, packaged deli meats, and chicken nuggets since the early ‘90s, but this is the first time you’ll find those valuable numbers on fresh meats. Until now, the entire meat counter – a large portion of weekly shopping lists – was void of the same information you rely on in other store aisles.
The new rule requires nutrition labels for 42 major cuts of meat and poultry, such as beef tenderloin, pork chops, and chicken breasts, but retailers can simply put up a poster or offer a brochure with the nutrition information for these cuts. And that’s likely what they’ll do instead of slapping a label on an already crowded package of meat. Only ground and chopped meats — including raw hamburger, ground beef patties, ground turkey, and ground pork must display the nutrition label right on the package.
Ground beef is the most commonly consumed beef product in the U.S. and it’s one of the biggest contributors of saturated fat in the American diet. The types you can buy vary dramatically depending on the cut of meat used and the percentages of fat and lean. Ground beef can range from 5% to 30% fat (95% to 70% lean), yet all varieties look pretty much the same. You can’t really see the fat inside ground beef – and the percentage lean and fat terminology on the label can be confusing.
Did you know that this description means percent fat by weight? It’s the only food that uses this calculation (and it’s been that way for over 50 years), but it’s really not all that helpful. With the new nutrition facts labels, you can get a better picture of what you’re buying. Now you can see that the fat in ground beef varies from 5g to 33g per serving (and saturated fat from 2.5g to 13g). Calories start at 155 and go up to 375 – quite a hefty difference.
Here’s what you need to know about the new meat labels:
- All of the ground meat nutrition labels are based on 4 ounces of raw product, which translates to 3 ounces of cooked. Some dual labels are designed to tell you both — although only the raw numbers are required.
- You won’t find how many servings are in a package — which is where so many people get tripped up. The servings per container will be listed as “varies.” So for all this nutrition information to be valuable, you’ll need to know how much you’re really eating.
- For all the meats that are not ground (such as steaks and chops), the nutrition information is based on 3-ounce cooked portions — so keep in mind the lack of consistency with ground meat. For these numbers, you’ll likely need to hunt down the poster, and remember, the information is only valuable if you can translate that 2-pound roast into what’s actually served on the plate to your family.
Although some fresh meats, especially poultry, have been voluntarily adding a nutrition label on the package, it’s never been required. Now all meats will have an equal chance to tell their nutrition story. And that’s probably the best part of all of this. Now you can see that certain cuts of beef and pork are just a lean as poultry. Now it will be easier to tell what’s a “lean” cut – defined as less than 10g of total fat and 4.5g or less of saturated fat per serving. Now you see the calories in the spareribs you’re buying so you can budget your day accordingly.
What you won’t be able to do is compare all these numbers with fish – something that certainly deserves more attention on your shopping trips. USDA does not oversee seafood, that’s the Food and Drug Administration, which doesn’t require nutrition labeling for fresh seafood. It’s voluntary, along with the nutrition labeling of fresh fruits and vegetables.
So get to know the meat you’re buying and enjoy in moderate portions (6 ounces or less per day). But remember to also fill your cart with the foods that provide the least amount of nutrition information in the grocery store: seafood, fruits, and vegetables.