Decoding Meat Labels

The 9 things you need to know when you’re at the grocery store or butcher.

In addition to selecting your cut of meat at the grocery store or butcher, you might also find yourself faced with the task of determining if you want grass-fed or grain-finished, organic or natural. Here is what these labels mean:

Grass-fed, Organic and Natural


Cattle are raised on grass for the first six months, but then fattened on grain (usually corn or soybeans) in the months prior to slaughter. Grain-fed cattle will gain weight much quicker and with more marbling than those eating grass. This is the beef that Americans are most familiar with — about 85% of all beef sold is in this category. If the label does not specify grass-fed, you can assume the cow was grain-finished.

Grass-fed refers to cattle raised, but not always exclusively, on grass and hay. Cow's stomachs easily digest grass (but not grain), so it is a more natural, humane and antibiotic-free way to raise cattle. Grass-fed beef is leaner, though not necessarily tougher, than grain-fed. There is a slight difference in flavor-some say it's a little gamier. Because it's leaner, it's best to cook grass-fed beef no more than medium-done. Nutritionally, it's higher in the healthy omega 3 fats, vitamin E and beta carotene. There are currently no regulations governing the use of the term-grass-fed claims are not subject to inspection and should not be confused with 'organic' beef [see Organic below].

Organic is a legally defined term, subject to strict rules and regular inspections. Meat labeled 'organic' must be produced without synthetic fertilizer, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, genetically modified ingredients or irradiation. Although organic cattle must have access to pasture, 'organic' does not mean the animals were grass-fed or pasture-raised. Cattle raised organically can be fed grain so long as it is organically grown. Because organic rules forbid the feeding of animal byproducts to other animals, organic meats pose the lowest risk of mad cow disease.

The USDA allows producers of conventionally raised animals to use the label Natural so long as their product contains no artificial flavor or color, chemical preservative or any other artificial ingredient. However, by the USDA's own definition, all fresh meat qualifies as 'natural'. Although much natural beef is raised with sustainable farming practices, there is no certification or inspection-compliance is on the honor system.

Not applied to beef. The Pastured label is permitted for pork and poultry products when the animals have been raised on pasture. Not quite the same thing as 'grass-fed'; swine and poultry are omnivores and therefore cannot live on grass alone.

The term is used exclusively for poultry, meaning the birds are not in cages.

Dry-Aging vs Wet-Aging

You've heard of aged beef, but what is it and why would you want it? Aging, either dry or wet, simply refers to the slow enzymatic breakdown of proteins in the muscle. Done under strictly controlled conditions, it tenderizes the meat and develops flavor.

Dry aging is done at 34 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit, usually for 4 to 6 weeks. These are the slabs of beef you see hanging in high-end butchers' (refrigerated) windows. It's a costly process, reserved for only the finest cuts. Since it loses about 20% of its original weight to evaporation, the flavor is dramatically concentrated.

Though the same chemical process is at work in wet-aging, the flavor compounds produced are very different. Wet aging simply means the meat has been kept in its plastic wrap for an extra period of time (days or weeks). The wrap protects the meat from microbial growth while the enzymes do their thing. If you've ever kept meat in the fridge for a couple of days before cooking it, you were doing some informal wet-aging of your own.

Give it a Rest!

Many recipe-users casually gloss over and disregard that common last phrase "let rest for 15 minutes" and then wonder why their meal was not all they hoped for. This is actually a very important part of the process and will make the difference between an even-hued and tender roast and a tough, dry piece of meat with a small red center surrounded by a large grey-brown border. Keep in mind, there are several significant events taking place in the minutes after a piece of meat has left the oven.

  • First off, it's still cooking! Remember, the reading you get from your meat thermometer is taken from the coolest part of a steak or roast-the layers of meat closer to the surface are a great deal hotter, and they continue to radiate heat towards the center. The internal temperature of a roast rises about ten degrees after it leaves the oven. Those ten degrees could well be the difference between tender, juicy meat and something dry and disappointing.

  • Second, during cooking, intense heat drives most of the juices toward the center of the meat. A 10- to 15-minute rest should be enough time to allow those juices to be reabsorbed and redistributed more evenly.

  • A final tip: Choose a well-sharpened knife for carving. After waiting all that extra time, the last thing you want is to squeeze out those wonderful juices by sawing away with a blunt knife.

Nutritional Benefits of Beef:

Beef was a nutritional villain for a while, but it's come back into favor with both nutritionists and informed eaters. Today's beef is leaner than ever, and certain cuts eaten in moderation (about three to four ounces) do not have much more saturated fat than a boneless, skinless chicken breast. It's also an excellent source of iron, zinc and vitamin B12-three nutrients difficult to find together in such abundance in other foods.

Beef can be part of a heart-healthy diet. Select the leanest cuts-top round, eye of round and round tip, and don't make it the main focus of the meal. Add it to salads or serve it with generous servings of grains and vegetables. Also, be aware of "grading" which can indicate the amount of fat (marbling) in beef. The more marbled, the more tender it is. Prime beef can have forty percent more fat than the same cut that's graded choice, and select can have five to twenty percent less than choice. If the beef is not labeled, you can safely assume it is either choice or select.

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