WASHINGTON — The beef industry, armed with new nutrient data from an industry-sponsored Texas A&M study, is boasting that beef now contains less fat than we once thought.
Does this mean we can eat as much beef as we want without worrying about fat and cholesterol?
This so-called "new beef" has slightly fewer calories and less fat than it did when the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its 1986 nutrient data, but most of the reductions come from a closer trim rather than from less fat in the meat.
If you compare one of the leaner cuts--roasted eye of round--a 3-ounce serving now has 149 calories, compared to 156 in 1986, 4.8 grams of fat compared with 5.7 grams and 1.8 grams of saturated fat vs. 2.2 grams. Cholesterol remains the same at 59 milligrams.
"Is beef leaner?" asks Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group. "It's leaner because the supermarkets are trimming the fat off; there isn't a huge difference in the trimmed meat itself.
"I think the important thing people should realize is all beef is not lean. Beef has to be scrupulously trimmed to approach lean. And it has to be eaten in 3-ounce servings, which are about the size of the palm of your hand."
Indeed, some of the cuts are relatively lean--braised top round takes 25% of its calories from fat and roasted eye of round takes 28% of calories from fat. But other cuts promoted by the industry as "skinny" still take nearly half their calories from fat--43% for broiled tenderloin and 44% for London broil. Compare these with the fattiest cut--regular ground beef--which takes 64% of calories from fat.
The old nutrient numbers from 1986 were based on a trim that left half an inch of fat around the outside of the meat, but the new study gives data for beef with 1/4-inch as well as zero trim. The new study came after a 1988 National Beef Market Basket Survey by Texas A&M concluded that retail cuts from supermarkets in 12 cities contained an average fat trim of less than one-eighth inch. In fact, approximately 42% of the cuts contained no external fat. The beef industry paid for both surveys; results were monitored by the Department of Agriculture.
"For the first time in decades, we now have data that fits in with what really is in the retail case," Jeff W. Savell, leader of the meats section of the animal science department at Texas A&M, told a press conference here recently.
The meat used in the study may be more like the kind of beef found in the local supermarket, but how much fat you get depends more on the home cook.
Although Savell says that beef is leaner because of closer trim and changes in cattle breeding, he points out that the big difference comes when the home cook cuts off the outside trim before cooking.
Typically, the same cut that contained 10% fat in 1986 had 9% fat when cooked with 1/4 trim and 8% when cooked with zero trim. This amounts to about a 10-calorie reduction per 3-ounce serving, Savell says. Put another way, you save the fat equivalent of 1/4 pat of butter.
The reason? Researchers have found that when beef is cooked with the external fat still attached, small amounts of fat liquefy and migrate into the lean tissue.
"Our recommendation is that consumers who are trying to reduce their fat intake should remove the external fat before cooking," the Texas A&M scientists concluded in their report.
Savell suggests you use a small sharp knife, like a paring knife, and start cutting the fat away. After about an inch of cutting, pull the rest of the fat off.
But Texas A&M technicians also removed the internal fat or marbling with a scalpel to get the figures the government calls "separable lean." And consumer advocates say this skews the results.
"Ordinary people who trim the meat don't take off nearly as much fat as the technicians using scalpels," says CSPI's Liebman. "If you trim both outside and inside fat with less precision than the technicians, you are getting a lot more fat than these numbers imply.
"The beef industry and USDA are presenting the best-case scenario. I am not convinced that people are capable or willing to trim off every last bit of fat. All I can do is doubt their numbers. We have no other study to compare it with."
But do people really trim their beef? And, if they do, how much? Although both Savell and Sue Anne Ritchko, administrator of the Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Information Service, say most people trim their meat, the Department of Agriculture has no exact statistics to back up that claim.
Participants in the Department of Agriculture's Food Consumption Surveys were asked if the fat was eaten, not whether they trimmed it before cooking, according to Sharon Mickle, a Department of Agriculture home economist who works with the data.