Beef 101 – The Differences Between Grades of Beef

By Heide Kennedy, Arizona Farm Bureau Communications Intern

When walking through the meat section of the grocery store, you’ve probably noticed the little shield symbols on the packages of meat that say something like “USDA Prime” or “USDA Choice.” As many of us know, those labels signify the quality grade of the meat, but what many of us don’t fully know is what exactly each label means or what they are based on.

According to the USDA’s website, there are 8 total grades given to beef. Each grade is determined based on the amount of fat marbling (the visible streaks of fat) in the cuts of beef. The fat marbling in each cut lends to its tenderness, juiciness, and overall flavor. Read on for a little more insight into the details of each grade of beef!

Prime – Beef that is graded prime is the top tier when it comes to quality beef. Prime beef is from younger, well-fed cattle, leaving it with abundant fat marbling throughout. It is excellent when it comes to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor.

Choice – Beef graded choice is still high-quality beef, but it has less fat marbling than prime beef. Choice beef is what is most readily available to consumers in a typical grocery store.

Select – Select beef is leaner than both prime and choice beef cuts. As a result, it has less flavor and juiciness than the other two grades of beef. Like choice, it is also very readily available to consumers.

Standard and Commercial – Standard and commercial-graded beef is also frequently sold as ungraded beef or store-brand meat for a lower price. Both these grades of beef are very low in fat content, so they lack a lot of the tenderness, flavor, and juiciness of other beef grades.

Utility, Cutter, and Canner – These last three beef grades are ones that you will rarely see cuts sold in a store. This is the leanest of all beef and is typically from older cattle. Due to its lack of fat content, whole cuts from these grades are not the best for cooking with, so they are typically reserved for use in ground beef, canned meats, or other processed meat products.

One thing that is important to note, is that each and every one of these grades of beef is still completely safe to eat and is still very nutritious. Just because a cut of beef has a lower grade doesn’t mean that it is bad beef. It’s just leaner, tougher beef that is better to be ground up or cooked with moist cooking methods where you can add juiciness and flavor back as opposed to more marbled cuts of beef that already have lots of moisture and flavor and can withstand dry cooking methods.

So, now you know all of the details about each grade of beef, so you can make a more informed decision the next time that you’re out grocery shopping.

On a side note, another label to look for when shopping for beef is the Arizona Grown label because Arizona-produced beef is some of the best in terms of quality and taste! Plus, you can go to our Fill Your Plate Farm Product Search to find Arizona Beef producers that will sell to you directly.

Remember May is National Beef Month!

For more articles on beef, check out the Fill Your Plate blog!

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