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Grass-Fed Ground Beef: Lean? Extra Lean?

by 8187 · October 14, 2011 at 03:39 PM

My local Whole Foods here in northern California has a fantastic selection of meat, much of it organic: beef, bison, lamb, pork, and probably a few others that don't come immediately to mind. The store presents a choice between two kinds of Organic Grass Fed Ground Beef: "Lean" (no more than 16 percent fat) and "Extra Lean" (no more than 9 percent).

Since getting my ground beef there, I have found myself reflexively opting for "Extra Lean." Earlier today, waiting in line for my turn, it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn't explain to myself why I was opting for "Extra Lean" rather than "Lean." I mean, hey, I consume extra virgin coconut oil regularly, along with grass-fed butter. So I have no problem, in principle or in practice, with consuming saturated fat in my diet. Especially because my diet is grain free, and also because I always choose grass-fed, with pasture-fed a runner up when grass-fed's not available. And, for what it's worth, I also focus on keeping n-6 sources in check (minimizing nuts/seeds, as much as I love 'em) and keeping n-3 sources in good supply (wild salmon + supplementation).

Further detail: I successfully transitioned to the Paleo/Primal template a year ago. Have never felt better in all respects of my life. Just got my latest blood work done at Life Extension. Sweet stuff, including strong hormone readings, sans supplementation. I'm 57 and loving my life.

So, I find myself inclined to think that my reflexive (key word) preference for "Extra Lean" probably speaks to the extent that for years I've been conditioned by the media hegemony's ritualistic incantations: "Fat = bad. Saturated Fat = Extra Bad." Not unlike the conversation that still kicks in when I order a cappuccino and they ask me "low fat or regular?" Some part of me thinks it's "healthy" to choose what used to be called "skim" milk.

Then again, is it possible my preference isn't based solely on years of being lectured by men in white suits (MDs) and vegan propagandists like Dean Ornish and John Robbins? I keep wondering whether, possibly, there might actually be sound empirical reasons for one such as me to opt for "Extra Lean" over merely "Lean." Like, perhaps: "Just because saturated fat isn't Satan, that doesn't mean I should consume it to excess. By consuming Extra-Lean ground beef, I can look to other foods (like coconut, and unsweetened very very dark chocolate) as sources for some of my saturated fat."

Anyhow, I welcome input. What are some logical, empirically grounded criteria to bring with me next time I step up to the meat counter and face my fateful decision?

BTW: I'm aware that Paleo/Primal isn't exactly of one mind on the Sat-Fat issue. I'm hip to the various main opinions, and am not interested in reprising the controversy here, except to the extent that it's relevant to your response.

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8 Replies

9551 · September 15, 2011 at 10:56 PM

I would say avoid both "extra lean" and "lean" and go for "extra un-lean."

A quippy response with a point to it: I think that ground beef is pretty much always too lean, even weirdly lean. Even if it's as much as 16% fat by weight then, assuming there isn't very much in there that's non-digestible, then that only gets you 30% fat by calories. (Just for reference, if it were 25% indigestible by weight, then you'd still only be at 38% fat.)

So what can you do about it? Well at my Whole Foods at least, I asked and they delivered. If I call ahead of time, even just a couple of hours ahead of time, they'll grind me up some 20% or 25% fat ground beef. It definitely means there will be a lot of liquid fat in the pan when you're cooking, but the meat in the burger itself will stay fattier. (You can also take care to sear both sides to try and contain more of the fat.) Give it a shot!

7741 · September 15, 2011 at 10:33 PM

I go for the most fat possible in most things, but especially in ground beef. Being poor and skinny, my eye is always on calories per dollar. Plus I love to saute my vegetables in beef fat.

14843 · September 16, 2011 at 12:06 AM

I'd go for the higher fat version, since there are a lot of valuable fat-soluble nutrients in grass-fed beef (including CLA according to the WAPF folks).

1219 · September 16, 2011 at 10:39 PM

Channeling WCCPaul, I would forgo both the lean and extra lean version and simply have my ground beef made to order at Whole Foods. At my Whole Foods, if I arrive before they put the equipment away they will special grind my beef for me. I usually get 70/30 and sometimes I have even ordered 60/40. The more enlightened folks behind the counter will usually charge me less because I am including so much fat.

I'm not going to comment on whether or not cutting fat from beef is sound. I don't think it is but the best way to gauge that is the overall amount in your diet, then you can play with the ratios of various foods depending on what you are trying to achieve. So if you want to eat 30% fat overall, then you can just calculate the amount of ground beef in your diet that will allow you to do that, while still getting all the other fat(s) that you want and stay within your self-defined parameters.

Having said that, when it comes to ground beef it really doesn't matter. Why? Because no matter the amount of fat when you cook a very fatty burger versus an extra lean burger the final product is about the same in fat content. The more fat you begin with the more fat that cooks out. The difference is in the taste. The burger with a beginning higher fat content is usually much more flavorful than the extra lean (or lean) burger when cooked, even though the fat content is about the same for the end product.

So I think worrying about the fat content of ground beef is much ado about nothing. Order the higher fat version and enjoy the flavor difference!

Also using cuts other than chuck also makes for a special treat from time to time.

18373 · September 15, 2011 at 09:57 PM

I find this very unfortunate, actually, because when I do have the money to splurge on meat from better sources, I am turned off by the leanness. I usually buy 80/20 or 75/25, and it simply doesn't exist in the grassfed section. I'm aiming for a high fat diet, so it's a quandary.

2291 · September 15, 2011 at 09:55 PM

Seems like you answered your own question. Meat more than 16% fat is already very lean. You eat lots of sat. fat anyway. You may as well cook with it so as to get some good beef flavor without having to douse it with coconut oil or butter.

160 · September 15, 2011 at 09:24 PM

Eat what you love and feel drawn your intuition, not someone else's mind-set. You have the paleo knowledge.

1336 · September 15, 2011 at 09:42 PM

I tend to buy the leanest possible mainly becasue it doesn't cook down as bad. I prefer it to be meat after cooking, not a puddle of fat. Also, I do believe that calories count sort of, not as much as on SAD, but still somewhat.

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