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Is the fat content difference between extra-lean, lean, medium and regular ground beef significant?

Beef loses its fat once cooked. A beef patty made from regular ground beef loses one-third of its fat during grilling.

Lisovskaya Natalia

Question

What's the difference between extra-lean, lean, medium and regular ground beef? Is their fat content really that different once they're cooked?

Answer

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It's true that cooking ground beef reduces its fat content. A beef patty made from regular ground beef, for example, loses one-third of its fat during grilling. For a six-ounce burger, that's a big savings – about 20 grams of fat, or 5 teaspoons' worth.

Even so, you can't cook all the fat away. That six-ounce burger made from regular ground beef will still have more fat than one made from lean ground beef, an extra 11 grams of fat, give or take. If you make your burger with extra-lean ground beef instead of regular, you'll save 21 grams of fat (and 170 calories). That's considerable.

Ground beef – as well as ground chicken and turkey – is classified based on the maximum amount of fat it's allowed to contain.

Extra-lean ground meat has no more than 10 per cent fat (e.g. 90-per-cent lean). In other words, extra-lean ground beef and chicken contain no more than 10 grams of fat per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of raw meat.

Lean ground beef has a maximum of 17 per cent fat, medium ground beef has no more than 23 per cent fat and regular ground beef contains, at most, 30 per cent fat.

Ground beef is processed from a variety of beef cuts. Extra-lean and lean ground beef are made mostly from lean cuts such a sirloin and round steak. Medium and regular ground beef have a greater proportion of fattier cuts from the shoulder (e.g., chuck steak) and plate (e.g., skirt and hanger steak) areas of the cow.

Butchers also add fat trim when grinding beef to ensure the fat content of each variety meets the regulated guidelines.

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Extra-lean and lean ground beef are best for meatloaf, stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls – recipes that don't need to be drained of fat after cooking. Medium ground beef is a good choice for recipes that allow excess fat to drip off during cooking or where fat can be drained off after cooking (e.g. burgers, meatballs).

Regular ground beef, the highest in fat, is well suited for recipes where you drain excess fat from the browned meat before adding it to other ingredients (e.g. pasta sauces, tacos, casseroles).

Of course, you don't have to cook with medium or regular ground beef if you prefer not to. Lean and extra-lean ground beef work well in all recipes, with the added benefit of providing fewer calories and saturated fat (even after cooking).

There's more to ground beef, however, than its calorie and fat content. All varieties of ground beef are exceptional sources of protein, B vitamins, heme iron (the type of iron that's well absorbed), zinc and selenium.

A 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving of cooked lean ground beef delivers 30 g of protein (5 eggs' worth), a full day's worth of vitamin B12 and half of a day's worth of niacin, a B vitamin used to make stress hormones and convert carbohydrates into energy.

It also serves up 80 per cent to 90 per cent of your daily zinc requirements along with 22 micrograms of selenium (adults need 55 mcg a day), a mineral that helps regulate the thyroid gland, support immune function and fend off free radical damage.

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Still, don't overdo it. There's concern that eating too much red meat (e.g. beef, pork, lamb, goat) may increase the risk of colorectal cancer, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In fact, the connection between heavy intakes of red meat and colorectal cancer is so convincing that experts recommend we eat less than 18 ounces of it each week.

Substitute ground beef with lean or extra-lean ground chicken or turkey more often. Made from skinless, boneless breast and thigh meat (extra lean has more breast meat than thigh), both are excellent sources of protein, B vitamins (especially B12, niacin and pantothenic acid) and zinc.

In terms of calories and total fat, ground chicken and turkey are similar to extra-lean ground beef. They are, though, a little lower in saturated fat.

Back to beef burgers. Whether you make burgers with extra-lean, medium or regular ground beef, be sure to cook them to an internal temperature of 71 degrees C (160 degrees F) to kill off bacteria that cause food poisoning. Chicken and turkey burgers are safe to eat once they've reached 74 degrees C (165 degrees F).

Harmful bacteria can contaminate the outer surface of the meat. When the meat is ground, the bacteria are mixed into the meat.

That's why it's safe to cook steak to medium rare (63 degrees C/145 degrees F); the goal is to kill all bacteria on the outside of the meat. Burgers, however, must reach a higher internal temperature to ensure bacteria are destroyed.

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Ground meat by the numbers

Per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), broiled

Extra-lean ground beef

  • Calories: 203
  • Protein: 30 g
  • Fat: 9 g
  • Saturated fat: 4 g

Lean ground beef

  • Calories: 250
  • Protein: 26 g
  • Fat: 15 g
  • Saturated fat: 6 g

Medium ground beef

  • Calories: 270
  • Protein: 26 g
  • Fat: 18 g
  • Saturated fat: 7 g

Regular ground beef

  • Calories: 304
  • Protein: 25 g
  • Fat: 22 g
  • Saturated fat: 9 g

Lean ground chicken

  • Calories: 189
  • Protein: 23 g
  • Fat: 10 g
  • Saturated fat: 3 g

Leslie Beck is a registered dietitian based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.

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