If you’ve ever stood in front of the meat counter at your grocery store or butcher nibbling your nails in confusion, you’re not alone. We recruit three top industry experts to help decode exactly what those labels mean—so you know which beef to dig into.
① Grass Fed
One hundred percent grass-fed beef is generally considered to be better for the cow, for you and for the environment. The bovine digestive system is primed to handle grass; in turn, the cows who munch on it grow stronger and healthier than their grain-fed compadres. Lenny Lebovich, CEO and founder of PRE Brand, the country’s fastest growing (and one of its most ethical) purveyors, equates feeding grain to cattle to feeding a lactose-intolerant person milk all day—their digestive system simply isn't built to process corn and other foods. Plus, "the meat has a more robust flavor than when cows eat grain—it's leaner and nutritionally better for humans," Lebovich says, adding, "while all red meat is high in protein and iron, grass-fed meat is lower in calories, fat and saturated fat; higher in vitamins A and E; and packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids."
② All Natural
Robert Dellapietras of Brooklyn’s Dellapietras meat market knows that all natural has become something of a buzzword, one that can be erroneously confused with terms like higher quality and organic. All-natural beef, he explains, simply means that a cow was raised without antibiotics and hormones.
To be certified organic, beef must come from cattle that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) livestock requirements; they must only be fed certified organic feed, and they can’t receive any growth promotants or antibiotics.
"Organically raised cattle must have access to pasture, but they may be temporarily confined for specific reasons," Lebovich says. "Organic certification has no relation to grass feeding—organic corn, soy and grains are permitted."
④ Pasture Raised
This term refers to the cattles' living conditions and specifically calls out cattle that have been allowed to roam outside in their natural habitat and not confined to indoor feedlots. Experts agree that pasture-raised cows are happy and healthy. "Feedlots can cause a lot of health issues, such as disease and discomfort, due to the extremely confined space," Lebovich says. "Because of the overcrowding and concentration of manure, feedlots are a breeding ground for the quick spread of illness among animals."
⑤ USDA Prime Choice
USDA grades, such as Prime, Choice and Select, are a measure of the meat’s tenderness. Dellapietras is a fan of Top Prime. "It has a different flavor profile than other options. If the product is aged, you’re talking about a truly spectacular piece of meat," he says. "There's also no comparison when it comes to internal marbling—the inner layer of fat is where Prime meat's intense and rich flavors come from."
⑥ No Added Antibiotics or Hormones
Hormones are a straightforward do or don’t: Some farmers in the United States administer growth hormones to speed up development, but many studies claim they can have a negative impact on humans. The phrase hormone free means the cows have never touched the stuff.
"No added antibiotics" is a different story, as Lebovich explains. It has become standard practice to overuse antibiotics to prevent the illnesses that come from eating grain and being raised in feedlots. But the humane thing to do is to treat an animal with antibiotics when it’s sick, Bryan Mayer of The Brooklyn Kitchen says. There’s no telling whether the meat you’re eating came from a cow with the medication still in its system, even though federal regulations require a lag time between when antibiotics were administered and when the animal is taken to slaughter.
Hence, the term no antibiotics means the animal is not constantly fed antibiotics to prevent disease.
⑦ Angus Beef
Angus beef is a common breed of cow (typically black or red, if you were to see them on a farm) here in the United States; they typically have more meat on their bones than other cows. You may associate the name Angus with better, but they can vary in quality just like the other cows out there. If it’s official Certified Angus Beef—which all Angus beef is not—the beef is probably a decent piece of meat. In that case, the American Angus Association beef registry considers it to be an elite cut of cow with better inner marbling.
Helaina Hovitz is a native New Yorker, editor and journalist, who has the unreasonable notion she can help change the world, which food somehow factors into through six degrees of separation. Follow her on Twitter at @HelainaHovitz.