Steak: Making the Grade

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This one’s from the archives…

Ever wonder how the quality of beef is graded? What about the health benefits of steak? TCW has the answer.

Anyone who’s savored a quality piece of steak has tasted a distinct tenderness and juiciness unmatched by any other piece of meat. And from a nutritional standpoint, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and American Heart Association (AHA) agree that daily consumption of 6oz of meat provides us with recommended doses of magnesium (strong bones), iron (oxygen), zinc (healthy immune system) and B Vitamins (healthy blood/protein).

And for women, the benefits of eating steak are interesting. A 2012 study conducted by Australia’s Deakin University, published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, found that women who cut red meat out of their diet are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

Over 1,000 women who participated in the study showed that switching entirely to chicken, fish or plant-based proteins (19 vegetarians were included in the study) aren’t as healthy as many believe.

Associate Professor Felice Jacka concluded that women consuming less than the recommended amount of red meat were twice as likely to have a diagnosed depressive or anxiety disorder as those consuming the recommended amount, regardless of socio-economic status, physical activity levels, smoking, weight and age.

But the professor does advise women to not exceed the recommended amount of red meat either, which is also linked to depression and anxiety. Conclusion? Eating a moderate amount of red meat (like the USDA/AHA’s daily recommended 6oz serving), in addition to maintain a healthy diet and regular physical activity, is important to mental health. And according to a fair number of dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons, eating red meat also benefits the skin. But taste and nutrition alone don’t determine the best ‘grade’ of meat on the market.

According to the USDA, grading for quality is voluntary, requested and paid for by producers/processors, after a mandatory federal inspection ensures the meat is wholesome and correctly labeled/packaged.

The USDA certifies less than 2 percent of U.S. beef as Prime (the best grade), and this designation comes from qualifications like age of cattle, aging of meat and marbling of fat. And while there are eight levels of USDA-graded beef, only three – Prime, Choice and Select – are generally available in grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants. Here’s the breakdown from highest to lowest.

Prime grade meat comes from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is best when cooked with a dry heat (broiling, roasting, or grilling). You won’t often find it in grocery stores, because upscale restaurants are quick to purchase the limited supply from purveyors.

Choice grade is the second highest quality meat, with less marbling than Prime. Choice steaks from the loin and rib are tender, juicy and flavorful, suited to dry-heat cooking. But any of the less tender cuts (rump, round and blade chuck) benefit from being ‘braised’ (roasted or simmered) with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan to avoid over-cooking.

Select grade meat is normally leaner than higher grades. It’s fairly tender, but may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades because it has less marbling. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat, while other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

Some lesser grades of meat (Standard and Commercial) are frequently sold as ‘store brand’ meat, while others (UtilityCutter and Canner) are typically found in frozen dinners, hamburgers and other processed food products.

When ordering a USDA Prime or Choice steak in a restaurant or shopping for quality steaks to cook at home, always do your homework. While dining out, ask your server about the USDA grade; while shopping, look for the official USDA Shield label. It pays to be inquisitive, because only meat stamped with the official USDA Shield can be labeled ‘Prime’ or ‘Choice.’ So beware of marketing deceptions where some supermarkets may place their own stickers on the packaging. Without the official USDA Shield, you won’t be buying the real thing — plus, it’s illegal for sellers to mislead or misrepresent the shield/wording.

So there you have it.  Hopefully this brief guide will help you to avoid making any mis-steaks when picking your grade in the future (sorry!).

Since this article was originally posted there’s been a huge shift in eating and dieting habits.  Many who were once sworn carnivores are now avid vegans.  That’s not all of us, but if you’re no longer a steak fan, why not check out our new post on juicing leafy greens.

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