THE KINDEST CUTS
To become a more health-savvy meat consumer, you must master the label lingo likely to confront you when you shop. Here are some key terms and concepts.
Organic: Produced in strict compliance with the standards of the USDA National Organic Program. No antibiotics or hormones are permitted, and feed and land must be certified organic as well.
No Hormones and/or No Antibiotics: Raised without growth-promoting hormones and/or antibiotics, but not necessarily organic or grass-fed. Often less expensive than organic meat, this is a good choice when organic is hard to find or for shoppers on a budget.
Grass-Fed Only: Cattle are fed grass instead of grain or corn, which results in meat that is leaner, lower in fat and calories, and higher in vitamin E and antioxidants. Grass-fed beef also boasts a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Hormones and antibiotics are rare but may be used.
Natural: Minimal processing with no artificial additives.
Certified Humane: Ensures humane treatment of animals. The animals are allowed to engage in their natural behaviors, and are raised with sufficient space, ample fresh water, and a diet free from added antibiotics or hormones.
USDA Grades: These voluntary labels refer to how much marbling (or intramuscular fat) the meat has, as well as to color and maturity. The higher the grade, the younger and more tender the meat, and the greater the fat content. Prime tops the list and is found almost exclusively in restaurants, followed by Choice, Select, and Standard. The designations can be misleading: It is almost impossible to find a USDA Choice cut of grassfed meat, which by its nature is very low in fat--yet a lesser grade may still be an excellent piece of meat.
Unlabeled: A growing number of producers try to do right by their animals and the land, but for various reasons use no labels, organic or otherwise. If you have questions about what you're buying, ask your butcher, or contact the producer directly to find out how the animal was raised.