Food & Drink

How to make sense of all those meat labels

It’s hard to understand all the different labels on meat and what they really mean.
It’s hard to understand all the different labels on meat and what they really mean. Associated Press

Purchasing meat today can be downright confusing. There are so many labels, claims and brands.

Which one is best? What does all of this mean? I think we all are a bit more conscious today about the food we put in our bodies. I think meat is the most important part to get right.

Your grocery cart might be filled with lots of fresh produce – vegetables to roast, greens to become a beautiful salad, some grains to make a side, maybe bread. However, meat is usually considered center of the plate. It’s what you build your meals around if you’re a carnivore like me. Meat is also the most expensive item, and you want to be educated when purchasing.

Let’s break down these phrases at the meat counter and talk about what they really mean.

Natural

This term isn’t technically regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Therefore, products can claim to be “natural” without having to follow the strict guidelines applied to “organic” labeling. This one can be quite confusing. Keep in mind that this term isn’t regulated and you’ll have to do your own research and come to your own conclusions as to whether you want to purchase these meats.

Straight from the USDA’s webpage, this is what “natural” means: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term “natural” (such as “artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

Organic

The USDA stamps meat “organic” to indicate that 100 percent of the livestock’s feed and forage was organic, no genetically modified organisms were used and there were no antibiotics or hormones administered. There are strict guidelines for a farm or ranch to become organic. It takes certification from a USDA inspector who does an on-site tour, learns the practices of the farm or ranch and might even sample the soil to confirm no pesticides are used. There’s a reason organic food comes with a heavier price tag.

Grass-fed

This term can be confusing as well because all cattle are grass-fed for the beginning of their lives. Some animals are finished on grain at feedlots because it fattens them up more quickly and, quite honestly, gives them the flavor most people are used to. Grass-fed beef has less fat, and some describe the flavor as slightly gamey. I like the flavor; however, you won’t see me turn down any beef. Grass-fed beef also has its health benefits. According to a University of California-Berkeley study, grass-fed beef averages 80 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, which is double that of conventional beef.

No hormones

Hormones aren’t allowed in pork or poultry, and therefore the claim “no hormones” cannot be used on those products unless it’s followed with the statement “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” That makes one small portion of meat-buying just a little simpler. When it comes to conventional beef, hormones can be used to make the livestock grow more quickly. This has been in practice for a long time. Is it healthy for you? I won’t make that judgment call. I know I grew up eating meat with hormones, and I believe I’m quite healthy.

No antibiotics

This label means no antibiotics were used in the growing of the livestock. Antibiotics are sometimes administered in the feed to prevent illness. Choosing organic 100 percent of the time is really costly. I’ll be the first to admit it. While it’s a grand idea, the reality is that it doesn’t fit everyone’s grocery budget. I think that making small changes can make a difference.

After all this talk about beef, I know my mouth is starting to water. One of my go-to recipes for a casual dinner with friends or even a weeknight dinner for Randy is flank steak with chimichurri. The green, garlic-flavored, bit-of-spice sauce will brighten things up in the winter. I like this sauce for all meats, not just beef; it pairs well with chicken, shrimp and grilled vegetables. This sauce will take you minutes to whip up.

Chimichurri is an Argentinian sauce but has Basque roots, meaning “a mixture of things in no particular order.” Sounds like a lot of things I like to cook. So here’s my mixture of things I like to call chimichurri.

Adriene Rathbun is an enthusiastic Wichita cook who offers cooking classes through her business, Social. Reach her at socialcookingclasses.com or ar@adrienerathbun.com

FLANK STEAK WITH CHIMICHURRI

2 1.5-pound flank steaks, at room temperature

Salt and pepper

Chimichurri:

1 bunch parsley

3 garlic cloves

1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, depending on spice preference

1/2 cup olive oil

Kosher salt, to taste

Black pepper, to taste

Turn gas grill on medium-high heat. Season flank steaks with salt and pepper. Add flank steaks to the grill and let them cook for 10 minutes on the first side and six minutes on the second side for medium rare. Let the meat rest 10 minutes loosely tented, and then slice across the grain into strips.

To make chimichurri, place parsley, garlic, cayenne and salt in the food processor with the “S” blade and pulse until parsley is almost paste-like. Add olive oil and run the machine again. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve flank steak with chimichurri sauce.

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