Ground beef labeling can be confusing. Learn how to decode some of the terminology used on the label and understand more about the ground meat you are buying. Keep in mind that these label guidelines are according to United States standards. Variations will occur in other countries.
What Is in Ground Beef?
At least you can rest assured that it will be beef. By law, ground beef may not contain any added water, fillers, or binders. To find out the cut of beef and the fat content, you will have to depend on the label or grind it yourself. Grinding effectively tenderizes otherwise tough cuts of meat into a form that won't give your teeth a workout. The ground fat adds flavor.
If the label says ground hamburger, it is ground from less tender and/or less popular cuts of beef. Generally, the butcher reserves trimmings from other meat cuts (excluding innards) to grind into hamburger and ground beef. This means, in theory, there could be pieces of sirloin, chuck, ribs, or even filet mignon in that package of hamburger. According to USDA standards, hamburger may have fat added but cannot contain more than 30 percent fat by weight.
If the label says ground beef, it is the same as a ground hamburger, but it cannot have added fat. It cannot contain more than 30 percent fat by weight.
Specialty Ground Beef
If the label says it's ground sirloin or ground chuck, then those are the only parts included in the grind. These grinds are typically more expensive and leaner than the all-inclusive ground beef or hamburger. However, buyer beware. Ground sirloin or ground round can conceivably be no leaner than inexpensive ground beef, yet still be properly labeled as long as it doesn't claim to be lean. Don't depend on the cut to define leanness. The following percentages are used as a guideline for specific cuts:
- Ground chuck: 80 to 85 percent lean / 15 to 20 percent fat
- Ground round: 85 to 90 percent lean / 10 to 15 percent fat
- Ground sirloin: 90 to 92 percent lean / 8 to 10 percent fat
Lean and Extra-Lean Ground Beef
Most markets have switched to labeling that includes both the fat and lean percentage content to help consumers make their selections. If the label does not contain fat or lean percentages, let the color be your guide. In general, the brighter the red color, the leaner the ground beef.
- Lean Ground Beef: Lean ground beef must meet the requirements of ground beef but may not contain more than 22 percent fat. To be labeled lean, the ground beef must have a 25 percent reduction in fat over standard ground beef's 30 percent limit. Confusing? After doing the math, this means that to be labeled lean, the ground beef can contain no more than 22.5 percent fat. The fat percentage must be referenced somewhere on the packaging for all ground beef labeled as lean.
- Extra-Lean Ground Beef: Extra-lean ground beef must meet the requirements of ground beef but may not contain more than 15 percent fat.
You won't see cholesterol listed on the label, but if it is cholesterol you are avoiding, be aware that beef flesh and beef fat contain about the same amount of cholesterol. This means a standard ground beef patty could potentially have slightly less cholesterol than the equivalent lean ground beef patty after cooking, as the fat will have drained away.