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Understanding Hamburger Leanness Labeling in Stores

In the US, hamburger sold in stores is often labeled as ‘regular’, ‘lean’, or ‘extra-lean’. This can cause a little confusion for the consumer if that consumer doesn’t understand the difference.

This is compounded when some restaurants and fast food places like McDonald’s™ advertise 100% pure beef because it implies that some places add other things to their beef. Truth is that stores in the US can’t sell anything labeled as ground beef if it contains anything except beef. What fast-food restaurants often hedge on is the amount of fat the meat contains. Beef fat is still beef, after all.

At the store, the maximum amount of fat that ground beef can contain is 30%. This is sometimes labeled as 70-30, ‘70% lean’, or ‘regular’ ground beef.

Note that if the label says that it is hamburger, it can contain other meat, such as pork. However, the leanness remains the same.

Lean ground beef must not contain more than 20% fat. This might also be labeled as 80-20 or 80% lean.

Extra-lean ground beef can’t have a fat content of more than 15%, so it is also 85-15 or 85% lean.

Super-lean ground beef is at least 90% lean or 90-10; no more than 10% fat.

People might wonder why they grind fat up into the ground beef or hamburger, in the first place. The answer is two-fold. First, most of the flavor comes from the fat. This is also true of steaks, which is why good steaks usually have some fat attached. A person can trim the fat off after the steak is cooked. If the fat is cut off prior to cooking, the steak will often taste a little bland.

The second reason for grinding the meat and the fat together for ground beef and hamburger is that it helps hold the cooking meat together. Frankly, extra-lean and super-lean ground beef is nearly worthless for making a hamburger patty because it tends to fall apart when you try to turn it over.

It is for this reason that ground venison often also has the addition of fat, usually pork fat. Venison is substantially leaner than beef and if the fat isn’t added, patties will fall apart. The lean cuts are great for dishes that don’t need to hold together, though, such as meat sauces in spaghetti, chili, and so forth.

It can also be mentioned that restaurants and fast food places can get away with having ground beef with a higher percentage of fat than what a store could sell. It isn’t uncommon for restaurants like McDonald’s to sell “all-beef” burgers that have a 35% fat content. This can boost profits since fat is cheaper than meat.

  • Did you previously know the difference between regular, lean, extra-lean, and super-lean ground beef and hamburger?

    • Yes
    • No
    • Sort of

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Written by Rex Trulove

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5 Comments

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    • I occasionally run into people who don’t understand the difference. It really isn’t difficult to grasp, but nobody has taken the time to explain. A lot of people also don’t realize that stores can’t sell ground beef that has a higher fat content than 30% but that restaurants can.

    • Yes, the US is one of the places where hamburgers are definitely popular, though not all Americans eat them. They also aren’t “the most” popular food in the US. Thank you for that point as this is something I can and should write about.

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