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February 7, 2014

What to read into nutrition labels on raw meat

Q: When you read a nutrition facts label for raw meat, is the fat content listed for raw or cooked weight? If it's the cooked weight, is the manufacturer assuming the meat is rare or well done?

A: Good questions! Let's unravel this starting with a few bites of background on meat and poultry nutrition labels. First, definitions. Meats, sometimes called red meats, includes beef, lamb, pork and veal and the less commonly eaten bison, emu, venison, etc. Poultry includes chicken, turkey and the less commonly eaten duck, hen, goose, etc.

 In 1994, when the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 went into effect, our packaged foods got a facelift with the now familiar nutrition facts label. But it wasn't until 2012 that providing a nutrition facts labels was mandatory for manufacturers of single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products.

The Food and Drug Administration does the heavy lifting on food and nutrition labeling, but jurisdiction for meat and poultry products is under the Department of Agriculture's charge. The FDA takes the reins back for foods that contain less than 2 percent cooked meat. Think pork and beans, spaghetti sauce with meat or gravy mixes.

So it was the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service that in 2012 took nutrition labeling of meat and poultry products from voluntary to mandatory. The intent of this new rule, according to the FSIS, was to give shoppers a clearer sense of the options available and to help them make more-informed decisions.

 The 2012 rule mandated that packages of ground or chopped meat and poultry, such as hamburger or ground turkey, and the 40 most popular whole, raw cuts of meat and poultry, such as chicken breast or steak, feature the nutrition facts panel on the food's label or nearby on display in the market, says Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian in Washington and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

 The label must provide calories, grams of total fat and saturated fat based on the serving size. Ground or chopped meat or poultry that contains a lean percentage statement must now also list the percentage of fat in the product to allow for easier product comparisons. Manufacturers can voluntarily offer more information.

On packaged raw meat and poultry products, the nutrition facts are listed based on the product's raw weight. The serving size for nearly all raw meat and poultry products is four ounces. However, if the raw product was formed into patties, then the serving size would be the raw weight of each patty - for example, three ounces.

Here's a rule of thumb to translate from raw to cooked portions of meats and poultry. Dubost suggests that for meats, it's reasonable to estimate you'll lose about a quarter of the weight in cooking. So four ounces of raw meat with no bones will serve up roughly three ounces cooked. Dubost's estimate is corroborated by an evaluation of cooking yields for meats and poultry by the USDA's Nutrient Data Laboratory in late 2012.

To estimate the weight of cooked meat or poultry with bone in it, say a T-bone steak or chicken legs, figure you'll lose another ounce. So, four ounces raw with bones will result in two ounces cooked.

Do figure on variation based on several factors: cut of meat, amount of fat, whether it contains bones or skin, preparation method and how well you cook it. For example, a four-ounce raw portion of lean meat grilled to rare will lose less weight than if that steak had more fat on it and was cooked well done.

So what about that cut of red meat or burger you order in a restaurant? Menus typically refer to a raw weight, not the weight of the food served to you. This is based on an industry standard, not a regulation.

A hamburger described as a quarter of a pound (four ounces) will be about three ounces by the time you bite into it, and that eight-ounce filet will be about six ounces cooked. Menu labeling (at least at restaurant chains with more than 20 locations serving the same menu) will eventually be affected by regulations being developed under the Affordable Care Act. "I suspect once the restaurant menu labeling regulations go into effect, the nutrition information for meats and poultry items will be reported for cooked weights," Dubost said.

 

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