When my son Liam first learned to cook, he sometimes gathered information on the fly. One night he called and, without a greeting or pleasantries, asked “what is ground sirloin?” It turned out he was standing in front of a meat counter, trying to decide which package of meat to buy to make a hamburger for dinner. Once I understood where he was and the dish he was preparing, we talked through his options and he found the right kind of chopped meat for his burger. I’m sympathetic to his plight and was delighted that he knew enough to ask for guidance. I find meat labels confusing too.
FAQs to help us through the maze of ground beef labels.
What is the difference between ground beef and ground hamburger?
Ground beef contains fat already in the meat, but none that is added. By contrast, hamburger may contain added beef fat. (I’ll use the term “ground beef” to include ground hamburger in the subsequent FAQs.)
How much fat is in ground beef?
Ground beef or hamburger may contain up to 30% fat. Ground beef labeled as “lean” contains less than 10% fat under USDA (Dept. of Agriculture) labeling requirements and beef labeled as “extra lean” contains less than 5% fat. To make it even more confusing, stores can use their own labels to designate a different fat contents. For example, ground beef I bought recently had a label 96/4 meaning that the meat has 4% fat, but does not include the label “extra lean” even though it would meet the requirements for that category.
What else is in ground beef?
Ground beef can include seasonings, but cannot include added water, phosphates, extenders or binders. Processed meats and meat patties that contain ground beef but are called something else may contain vegetable protein, starch, dairy products, or other additives. These additives are less expensive than meat and moderate amounts not be bad, taste or health-wise. (Consider that meatloaf could be considered meat with additives. It is made from ground meat with breadcrumbs, egg, seasoning, and other ingredients.)
What do the labels ground chuck, round, and sirloin, mean? How do meats with those labels compare to ground beef?
There are four primary cuts of meat: chuck, round, loin, and rib. Generally, chuck and rib are less tender than loin and rib parts. Ground beef is typically made from less expensive cuts of meat. The fat content is not related to the cut of the meat, so extra lean ground beef may have less fat than ground sirloin. Also, keep in mind that meat with less fat is typically less juicy and flavorful.
What do “Choice” and “Select” labels mean?
The USDA does not require meat to be graded, but it has created an optional meat rating system. The most common USDA grades found in grocery stores are USDA Choice and USDA Select. The protein, mineral, and vitamin content of meat do not vary depending on USDA grade and ungraded meat has the same protein, mineral and vitamin content as meat that is graded. Stores may also use the words choice and select without the USDA designation – or use other terms – to describe their meat.
What do the dates on ground beef packages mean?
There is no federal requirement that meat packages be dated. Stores use different labels with dates, so read carefully to find out whether the date is a “use by” or “sell by” date.
Are there other types of ground meat besides beef?
Yes, any type of meat can be ground. Depending on where you live and what stores you have available, you may find ground lamb, ground turkey, ground chicken, ground pork, ground veal, and ground bison. I’ve even seen ground ostrich meat.