Find out how to shop smart for meat by knowing which terms are worth investing in and which are just a marketing ploy.

By Kelly Vaughan
Updated August 22, 2019
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Credit: Spauln

The claims made on meat packages appear to be as long as our own grocery lists. Organic vs. all-natural, wet aged vs. dry aged, all-natural, grass-fed, and pasture-raised are just some of the terms you may stumble upon when choosing your beef. But how do you know which are actually equated with being better for you, versus what terms are just a trendy, smart branding tool designed to make people think they’re buying better beef? Read below to make your next shopping trip moo-re efficient.

Organic

According to the USDA, “regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones” in order for the meat to be labeled organic. Farmers must pay the USDA to audit their practices and certify them organic, which can be costly. Because of the high-price tag for farmers, it’s something that small, local farmers may not choose to pay for, but that does not mean their processes don’t align with the USDA standards. Take the time to get to know your neighborhood farmer and learn about their practices.

All-Natural

While the “all-natural” term was coined by the USDA, it doesn’t hold a lot of weight. If a product is labeled “all-natural,” it means that the meat has been minimally processed and contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients. It’s a harder label to regulate and since nearly all meat is preservative-free, it doesn’t do much to distinguish quality meat.

Grass-Fed

This one means exactly what it sounds like— that the animals consumed an entirely grass-fed diet from birth to slaughter. Grass-fed is more expensive because it takes longer for the cows to gain weight, which means farmers will produce less meat each year. There is inconclusive evidence as to whether or not grass-fed truly is better for humans. It is typically leaner, with about one-third of the fat of grain-fed beef and with more omega fatty acids. However, there are no regulations or on-site inspections required for a brand to label their beef as grass-fed, which can lead to misleading claims.

Wagyu Beef

Wagyu is a particular Japanese bred cattle that is acclaimed for its marbling and melt-in-your-mouth texture. There are four breeds of Wagyu cows—Japanese Black, Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Brown. In Japan, Wagyu only refers to pure-bred cattle, but Wagyu cows in the U.S. can refer to half-bred cattle (which makes Japanese Wagyu the premium product). Wagyu beef is graded by the Japan Meat Grading Association, which assesses the beef based on its marbling, meat color and brightness, firmness and texture of meat, and color of fat. It’s known for being the most expensive beef on the market.

Raised Without Hormones or Antibiotics

While hormones naturally occur in animals and humans, this label means there are no added hormones or antibiotics. The concern about consuming these additives stems from “strong evidence that antibiotic use in food animals can lead to resistant infections in humans,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Premium vs. Choice vs. Select Beef

These labels refer to the amount of marbling, aka the amount of fat streaking, within the cut of meat. Prime beef has the most significant marbling of the three products, which means it is the best in terms of juiciness, flavor, and tenderness. Choice and select are less tender and have less marbling than prime cut beef, which means they’re better for braising and marinating, which can slowly break down the meat’s toughness.

Dry Aged

Dry aging means that beef has been dehydrated in the refrigerator, uncovered, to age for anywhere from a few days to several months. The process enhances the meats flavor and slowly tenderizes it by breaking down the muscle tissue. As the beef ages, it loses some of its weight from the dehydration process. Because of the lengthy process and substantial loss of meat, dry-aging is a costly process that is reflected in the retail price. It’s a product you’re more likely to find at butcher shops, gourmet grocery stores, and fancy steakhouses than a regular market.