How many calories in that cereal? How much sodium in that soup? For two decades, Nutrition Facts labels have answered those questions…but not always in the one section of the supermarket where you might need them the most.
If you were trying to figure out the calories in meat and poultry, you couldn’t always find a Nutrition Facts label. Nowadays, packages of ground meat, certain cuts of meat, and poultry have Nutrition Facts (along with deceptive lean claims). And a few companies voluntarily put Nutrition Facts on brand-name meats or poultry.
It’s true that some stores have posters listing the nutrition facts of fresh meat and poultry. But odds are, you haven’t noticed them. In some cases, they’re above or on the sides of the meat case. And even if your vision were sharp enough to read the fine print, the cuts on the posters don’t always match what the store is selling. So good luck with that.
Here are our tips for keeping an eye on the calories in meat and poultry.
Check the serving size
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that a typical serving of steak, roasts, chops, and poultry parts is just 3 ounces cooked (which starts out as 4 ounces raw). That’s about the size of a deck of playing cards.
A 3 oz. serving is typical? What planet is the USDA living on?
Even diets designed to lower bad cholesterol, like the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), use a more realistic 4 ounces of cooked meat. But if you want real realistic, look at typical servings at mid-priced restaurants. A chicken breast weighs 6 to 8 ounces cooked, and steaks range from 8 to 16 ounces raw (6 to 12 ounces cooked).
So before you check the calories in meat or the saturated fat or anything else, estimate your serving size. If you buy a pound of meat or poultry for every two people, that’s 8 ounces of raw meat—or 6 ounces of cooked meat—per serving. If you divide the pound into three servings, it’s 4 ounces of cooked meat per serving.
Pick an extra lean cut
Ounce for ounce, chicken breast meat has less fat than drumstick meat, which has less fat than wing meat, which has less fat than thigh meat.
But the difference between low-fat and fatty matters more for red meat. Pick a fattier chicken piece like a skinless thigh and your 4 oz. cooked serving ends up with 3.5 grams of saturated fat. Pick a fatty beef cut like chuck blade roast with a ¹/8″ fat trim and you’re up to 12.5 grams of sat fat.
And more fat in meat means more calories. A 4 oz. cooked serving of prime rib has 410 calories. The same size serving of eye of round roast has only 240.
Labeling rules specify that a “lean” cut of steak or roast can be no more than 10 percent fat, and an “extra lean” cut can be no more than 5 percent fat, according to the USDA. However, very few fresh meat packages carry those claims. And the meat industry assumes that consumers are world-class trimmers. (Even some fatty cuts end up “lean” if they have had all of their visible fat trimmed meticulously, but most consumers don’t trim with a scalpel.)
Trim and skin
It doesn’t matter if the fat is gone before you cook, as long as it’s gone before you eat. So if you don’t buy skinless poultry or ask the butcher to trim your meat, skin and trim at home.
Prime beef is the fattiest. Select is the leanest. Choice is in the middle.
If you want to skip some saturated fat and calories and save some money, look for select (when you can find it). Just keep in mind that, since select beef has less fat, you’ll want to cook it either hot and fast (a quick sauté, for example) or low and slow (like a stew or pot roast, which keeps in the moisture)
Watch out for “80% lean” ground beef
Beware of ground beef labels. They list not just the “% fat,” but the “% lean” as well. To most people, the word “lean” means low-fat. But ground beef that’s “70% lean” is the fattiest ground beef allowed on the market. And even ground beef that’s 80% or 85% lean is still fatty.
Look for ground turkey or chicken breast
If the label simply says “ground turkey” or “ground chicken,” you may be getting meat plus skin. (The skin is part of the bird, after all.)
If you want no fatty skin (or thighs or wings or other parts), look for “ground turkey breast” or “ground chicken breast.” Or check the Nutrition Facts. If a 4 oz. serving (raw) of your ground turkey or chicken has no more than 2 grams of saturated fat, you don’t have to worry about whether it contains skin or fattier meat.
Avoid added water and salt
It may look like fresh chicken, turkey, or pork with nothing added. But read the small print. If a chicken label says something like “containing up to 10% of a solution,” you’re paying chicken prices for water and salt.
Limit red meat
Choose poultry or fish over red meat. In a study of some 500,000 participants, those who ate the most red meat (about 5 ounces a day) were 30 percent more likely to die—mostly of heart disease or cancer—over the next 10 years than those who ate the least red meat (about 2/3 ounce a day). Those who ate the most white meat (poultry and fish) had a slightly lower risk of dying over a decade than those who ate the least. (The industry calls pork “the other white meat,” but scientists lump pork in with beef, veal, and lamb.)
In other studies, red meat seemed to boost the risk of colon cancer. Researchers aren’t sure why. Two possibilities: red meat’s heme iron or the mutagens that form when red meat is overcooked may promote tumors.
What do you look for when you buy meat and poultry? Let us know in the comments.
Sources: Arch. Intern. Med. 169: 562, 2009.