Ground Beef: Why Lean is Not Low Fat

Fat Content of Lean and Extra Lean Ground Beef Demystified

Ground beef
Rob Melnychuk/Photodisc/Getty Images

Beef is an important source of protein, zinc, iron, selenium (an antioxidant), and vitamin B12. But it is also one of the biggest sources of fat in our diet—think of all those quarter pounders, steaks, meatloaves, meatballs, red-meat chilis, and all-beef hot dogs we eat in a year. Yikes.

Luckily, ground beef is sold a few different ways in the butcher case at your grocery store offering a few different lean-to-fat ratios.

If you want the nutritional benefits of beef, but with less of the fat and cholesterol, you should opt for lean and extra-lean hamburger meat. But don’t be fooled into thinking you are eating a low-fat food by going "lean." You're not; you're simply lessening your fat intake.

Understanding the Lean Labels

On each package of ground beef, you will see the "lean point," which is the ratio of lean meat to fat meat of that particular type of ground beef. The range begins at 73/27 (the fattiest) and goes to 96/4 (the leanest). This lean point is calculated by dividing the grams of fat per serving by the total grams per serving and then multiplying by 100, which then determines the percentage of fat. For example, if a package of ground beef had 30 grams of fat per serving and the total grams per serving was 120, the meat would be 75/25 (lean to fat). To be considered "lean" the meat must have a ratio of 92/8 or higher, and extra-lean must be 96/4.

What Lean Means

Take lean ground beef, which, according to the USDA, is defined as containing no more than 10 percent fat, which means it is 90 percent lean, right? Yes, but there’s a catch: the percentage refers to product weight, not the percentage of calories from fat. This may be obvious to some, but many people don't know this, or at least don’t think it through.

 

What this means, according to the USDA, is that four ounces of lean ground beef (90 percent lean, 10 percent fat) is worth 199 calories, with 11g of fat. Given that there are nine calories in each gram of fat, 99 of those calories, or nearly half of them, come from fat. Similarly, four ounces of extra-lean ground beef (95 percent lean, 5 percent fat) is worth 155 calories, with 5.6 g of fat, or one-third of its total calories.

But to put this into some perspective, four ounces of ground chuck (which is 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat), most commonly used in hamburgers, chili, and meatballs, contains 287 calories and 22.6 g fat, which comprises 71 percent of its calories.

What This Means to Us

The question is, does this matter? The total number of calories in that four-ounce serving isn’t all that bad, especially if you eat about 2,000 calories a day. Although there is no set recommended dietary allowance for fat, it represents about 30 percent of suggested intake for those on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. But put that four ounces of chuck in a bun with cheese, bacon, and some kind of mayo dressing, then throw in some fries, and those calories, along with the fat count, will soon add up, tipping you over 1,000 calories for just one meal.

If you want to sink your teeth into a juicy but lean hamburger, go ahead, but you might want to consider lower-fat toppings such tomatoes, red onion slices, peppers, lettuce, and mustard.