Stocking Your Healthful Freezer: Meat, Poultry, and Fish (Part 6)

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Well, Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer, is now behind us. We escaped the wrath of Hurricane Earl and had three days of beautiful weather. But there’s a hint of fall in the air, the sun is rising later, and the leaves are beginning to change color. When fall arrives, we start to reach for the sweaters and jackets, and it seems that we automatically gravitate towards heartier, cold-weather foods, too. Stews, chili, meals cooked in the Crock-Pot…all of these are symbols of warmth and comfort when the seasons turn.

Whether you decide to dust off the Crock-Pot or continue to throw burgers on the grill, chances are you’ve got some kind of meat (or poultry or fish) in your freezer (assuming you have room given all the great ice cream treats that are out there!). This week, we’ll take a look at one of the most popular meats in the country that no doubt is taking up space in your freezer, and we’ll learn how to choose the healthiest type possible.

Ground hamburger. I don’t eat hamburger that often, but last week I had a hankering for tacos, so I bought ground beef at the grocery store. Hamburger is definitely versatile; you can make burgers, meatloaf, meatballs, chili, tacos, lasagna, sloppy joes…and a lot more. Ground hamburger usually contains less tender cuts of meat, but could contain some sirloin or filet cuts. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), ground hamburger can have fat added to it, but it can’t contain more than 30% fat by weight.

Ground beef. There’s not a big different between ground beef and ground hamburger, except that ground beef cannot have fat added to it (so I stand corrected as I bought ground beef last week, not ground hamburger). This means that the fat in ground beef is what occurs “naturally” in the meat. You can even go so far as to get your own beef ground at the butcher counter if you tend to be choosy about your ground beef. Some people like to get ground sirloin, ground round, or ground chuck. These cuts of meat usually are more expensive than ground beef.

But do you really know what you’re looking at when you look at the packaging? Most fresh meat doesn’t come with a Nutrition Facts panel because it’s regulated by the USDA, not the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In general, beef can be high in saturated fat, depending on the cut. But on the other hand, beef is an excellent source of protein, as well as B vitamins, iron, zinc, and selenium.

When you’re standing in front of the hamburger section, look at the label on the hamburger or ground beef package. You’ll see a number, expressed as a percentage and the word “lean.” For example, you might see “85% lean.” This means that the hamburger is 85% lean meat and 15% fat. Those who work in the meat industry or in food service might use the term “90/10”, for example, which is a lean-to-fat ratio that means 90% lean meat and 10% fat.

These percentages can be a little deceptive, however. After all, 30% fat or 20% fat doesn’t sound all that bad. But a 4-ounce, 70% lean ground beef hamburger patty contains 300 calories and about 20 grams of fat, 8 grams of which are saturated. On the flip side, a 4-ounce, 95% lean hamburger patty has just 190 calories, 7.5 grams of fat, and 3 grams of saturated fat, so it’s a much better choice. The downside of all of this is that you don’t have the nutrition information in front of you when you’re buying meat, so it helps to at least familiarize yourself with the lean-to-fat ratios. The other option is to check out the calorie and fat content of your favorite cuts of meat by using a nutrient database such as

The bottom line when choosing ground beef (or hamburger):

  • Choose ground beef that is at least 90% lean meat.
  • Look for “extra lean” beef, which contains no more than 5% fat (lean beef contains no more than 10% fat).
  • See red. The redder the meat is, the higher the lean content.
  • If you get your meat ground at the counter, remember that “chuck” meat has the highest fat content, whereas sirloin meat has the lowest.
  • Go easy with portions. A 4- to 6-ounce hamburger patty is reasonable; a triple decker cheeseburger…well, that’s a different story.

Other tips:

  • If your ground beef is gray all the way through, and/or if it smells rancid, discard it.
  • Use ground beef within two days of buying it and store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator; otherwise, wrap the meat in heavy foil or a freezer bag and freeze for up to three months.
  • Defrost frozen meat in your refrigerator, not on your counter.
  • Drain off any fat after cooking. To cut the fat even further, rinse off the meat with hot water and blot with a paper towel.
  • Broil or grill hamburger patties instead of frying in a pan.
  • To limit the chances of food borne illness, cook ground beef to an internal temperature of at least 160°.

More next week!

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