How to Shop for the Best Lean Meats

Your guide to navigating nutrition labels and choosing the leanest cuts of meat for your diet
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If someone asked you what "lean" meant, what would your answer be? Most likely you'd say something like "It means having less than 5 percent bodyfat." Or, "It means being able to see my abs — all eight of them." But if you ask the United States Department of Agriculture, it means something else entirely. The definitions of "lean" that they've developed can help you achieve your own definition of lean. The Food and Drug Administration is the body behind the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label, and it is tasked with regulating any number of industries (pharmaceuticals, supplements, cosmetics, medical devices), including the nutritional content of foods. As of 2007, it has developed a definition for "lean" that is given to foods that contain less than 8 grams of total fat, less than 3.5 g of saturated fat, and less than 80 milligrams cholesterol per serving.

In the early 1990s, the FDA worked with the USDA, which regulates meat and poultry products, to create a definition for the "lean" label that is applied to those products. The USDA defines ''lean'' as cuts that contain less than 10 g of total fat, 4.5 g or less of saturated fat and less than 95 mg of cholesterol per 3-ounce serving. There is also an "extra-lean" label for products that have less than 5 g of total fat and less than 2 g of saturated fat, but even extra-lean products are allowed to contain 95 mg of cholesterol.

For ground beef, it gets a bit more confusing, as the labeling typically lists the percent lean and/or percent fat of the meat by weight. The maximum fat content in any ground beef is 30 percent (70 percent lean). A package of ground beef labeled as 90 percent lean/10 percent fat sounds much leaner than the 70 percent lean/30 percent fat ground beef your mother used to buy, but it still contains more than 20 g of fat per eight ounces. When selecting ground beef, your best bet is to choose meat that is at least 93 percent lean/7 percent fat, which provides about 15 g of fat per eight-ounce serving. Of course, the leaner the better, and if you can find ground beef that is 96 percent lean/4 percent fat, grab it.

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