Decoding meat and choosing which ones to eat

Every day we make choices about what food to buy and eat, how to cook it and where to get it from. We are bombarded with messages and marketing surrounding those choices, and sometimes it can be a confusing array of similar information; it’s hard to know what it all means. If you’ve made the decision to keep meat in your diet, particularly red meat, decoding meat and choosing what to eat can be a minefield. We’d like to shed some light on some of the labels or industry terms you might hear flying around at the market or your local butcher, which can go a long way to explaining some very important things about the meat you buy and eat.


Reading the hidden messages on the labels should tell you quite a lot about where the animal was raised, what it ate and how you should cook it. We’ll also discuss some different meat choices, and how to choose what to buy to get the most for your money.


Like a lot of what we eat, the environment it’s grown or raised in contributes to the quality of the final product. Red meat is no different, in fact, it impacts the quality immensely. Most red meat can be categorised into the following three categories:

Grain Fed

  • Cattle are moved to feedlots when they are weaned and their diets consist of grain-based feed (usually soy and corn) and have very little exercise. This results in an animal that efficiently turns food into energy for growth and weight gain to reach physical maturity within 18-20 months
  • Grain fed meat makes up the majority of red meat found on supermarket shelves as it is the most cost effective form of farming
  • Is widely considered to have the most harmful environmental impact, due to its intensive nature, among other things

Grass Fed

  • This typically means free roaming cattle that eat grass and plants from the farm. However, most will be moved onto grain to optimise growth and weight just before slaughter
  • Grass fed is becoming more popular as both a marketing tool and differentiating factor with retailers as they are able to claim certain ethical and nutritional advantages over the feedlot meat, justifying a higher cost

Grass Finished

  • Free roaming animals that are never fed grain. This also means the animal has reached physical maturity within 24-36 months, allowing the muscle and intramuscular fat time to develop naturally
  • Most expensive option of meat and usually only available seasonally from select farmers

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Choosing the right cut

Meat will be one of two things, tender or tough, and your proposed cooking method should determine what cut to get. Remember that tender is not always the better option – stewing fillet never ends well.

Tender meat comes from lazy, low activity muscles. This lack of activity allows for:

  • a fine meat grain with less need for connective tissue, that is soft to the touch
  • higher cost
  • quick cooking – these cuts do well with being eaten medium to rare off the braai or griddle pan
  • think steaks, medallions and stir fries using fillet, rib-eye and loin cuts

Looking for something to do with those cuts? Try your hand at a summery teriyaki, the perfect T-bone (it’s easier than you think), or a fillet with bone marrow herb butter.


Tough meat comes from hardworking, high activity muscle. This translates into:

  • a wider variety of fibre throughout the muscles making for a coarser texture and higher level of connective tissue. This collagen is an important thickening agent in stews and casseroles and adds succulence to slow roasted meats.
  • more cost effective but patience is required – slow cooking methods will bring out the best in these cuts
  • cuts include brisket, neck, tail, chuck and blade

As we move into winter, these tough cuts shine. Try our perfect winter oxtail or a  goulash to bring out their best.


A great way to remember which muscles are tough and which are tender is to know that, starting at the centre of the cow’s back and moving down and outward along its body, the muscle will gradually bear more weight, so they go from the most tender (fillet lies along the spine) to tougher.

Tips on what to look for when buying meat

  • Meat should be deep red to purple in colour
  • It should be uniform in colour (not greying or discoloured)
  • Marbled with fat (white speckles in the muscle – this adds to the flavour and succulence)
  • Slightly moist to the touch, but not wet or slimy
  • Have a recipe / use in mind to get the right cut

So what’s with Wagyu?

When we talk about tender meat and well raised animals, Wagyu beef takes this idea to the next level. This Japanese meat is all about soft meat and the fat content within the muscle fibres. This intense marbling and high percentage of unsaturated fat contributes to an incredibly succulent and ‘melt in the mouth’ quality of meat. This fat is the important stuff: it’s a soft, white fat with a very low melting point that’s full of omega 3 and 6. Usually when you look at a piece of beef, you will see pink flesh with streaks of white fat, but Wagyu is so marbled, it appears nearly white, with a streaking of pink muscle fibres. The most expensive cuts are usually from certain regions in Japan, most famously Kobe. When buying meat from this region, butchers will display the ‘Origin Destination’ to account for the very high price and exclusivity.

Alternatives to beef

As South Africans, we have access to a wide variety of game meat. Most popular is ostrich, for its similarity in taste and texture to beef. Ostrich also has a lower fat and cholesterol content, making it a great, tasty, healthy option. It’s also very affordable, especially in comparison to beef. Take an ostrich fillet to the braai and see how you feel about it afterwards. We also have access to kudu, springbok and other game meat which can be a lot more affordable (and environmentally friendly) than farmed beef. It’s flavourful and local, so it’s worth giving a try next time you’re in the mood for a bit of red meat.


If you’d like to read up some more or are looking for a list of great meat sources, give From Pasture to Plate a read. We hope that explains some of the things you’ve read on meat labels, and helps you with decoding meat and choosing what to eat in the future.