Cut through the baloney: How to buy the healthiest cuts of meat

Summer is coming, and that means grilling time! But you will need to decode the jargon of beef buying

Racha Adib
Racha Adib - Special to Al Arabiya News
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Summer is coming, and that means grilling time! Beef is a great source of several important nutrients such as protein for muscle-building, iron for strong blood, and zinc for your immune system. Nonetheless, you should be choosy about the cuts you buy and the amounts you consume, preferably a three-ounce portion (equivalent to a deck of cards) every week.

Some beef cuts are lean, while others have large amounts of unhealthy saturated fat, so it is important to select the leanest cuts, which typically contain the words “round” or “loin.” The loins are the tenderest. A great choice is the tenderloin, also known as filet mignon, which is both tender and lean. The top loin and sirloin are not as tender but are a bit more flavorful. These do not need much work, and are best for quick-cooking, sautéing or grilling.

The round steak tends to be a bit leaner than the loins but is a tougher meat, and can be used for long cooking such as stewing, roasting or braising. The flank is also a good option. It is lean, fairly tender and extremely flavorful. If it is marinated properly, it is a great option for grilling, but do not to overcook it.

“Grass-fed”, “natural” and “hormone-free” are just a few labels on the meat counter and can be quite confusing. Learn what these labels mean so you do not fall for marketing gimmicks. The best way to buy meat is to find a producer that follows the standards that are important to you.

”Grass-fed” beef comes from cattle that eat nothing but fresh grass. Cattle raised conventionally graze until they reach a certain weight, then eat grains, usually corn. Grass-fed beef generally has less total fat and is richer in heart-healthy omega-3 fats and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which is touted as improving body composition. Grass-fed beef is generally more expensive, and there is limited long-term research to prove that it is better for you.

“Raised without antibiotics” indicates that the cow was raised without the use of antibiotics. However, other medication not classified as antibiotics can still be used.

“Natural” is one of the most widely-used labels, and basically means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added coloring. It has nothing to do with how the cattle was raised.

“Organic beef” means no hormones or antibiotics were used, and the cattle feed was all vegetarian, pesticide-free and certified organic. It also means the cattle had access to pastureland and sunlight. However, make sure the organic label is certified by a credible authority.

“Wagyu beef” includes breeds such as Kobe and usually contains the most marbling, making it juicier and more flavorful. Although it contains more omega-3 as a percentage than typical beef, it also has a higher overall content of fat and unhealthy saturated fat. Because it is marbled, the fat is incorporated within the meat, making it difficult to separate.

Now that you have the right beef cut, handling it is the next challenge. Trim off as much visible fat as you can before cooking. When cooking, use a rack so the fat drips away from the beef. Cooking meat at high temperatures, such as when barbequing, can create compounds that have been linked to some cancers, namely heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Marinating your beef reduces this exposure significantly.

The best way to check if meat is cooked is with a meat thermometer. It is also a great way to avoid food poisoning. Insert the thermometer toward the end of the cooking time and into the thickest part of the meat without touching any bones. For steak cuts target a temperature of 63°C (145°F), while ground beef should reach 74°C (165°F).

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