Meat content

This advice is designed to provide basic guidance to consumers. It is not a complete or authoritative statement of the law.

Buying meat

With concerns about obesity and the threat of heart disease from saturated fats and excessive salt, it’s never been more important to understand what we are eating.

When buying meat and meat products, it’s easy to think the content of the food is obvious. But how do you know how much lean meat it contains? How much water has been added? And what do expressions like ‘chopped and shaped’ mean?

The first thing to remember is that what you see in large letters on the front of the pack may not tell you the whole story. Consider, for example, a product called

‘Chicken breast – Made from 100% breast meat’.

Clear what that means? Read the small print on the back of the pack, however, and you find ‘Slices of reformed chicken breast (80%) with added water, starch and milk protein’. So not quite the ‘pure’ product you may have first thought!


Labelling on the front of the pack may suggest you’re buying meat cut from a carcase or joint, with nothing added. But to be sure, you need to check the true ‘legal name’ usually shown on the back of the pack.

You may find statements on labels like: 

  • ‘Formed from selected cuts’
  • ‘Made up of selected cuts’

What do they mean? These terms tell you that several pieces of meat have been shaped together in a mould to look like a joint or slice of meat. Even a product described simply as ‘pork’, ‘beef’, ‘lamb’ or ‘chicken’ may contain added fat, connective tissue (gristle that holds the meat to the bone) and skin.


You will also find some or all of the following shown in the ingredients list of meat products: 

  • pork fat
  • pork rind
  • beef collagen (a chemical which forms the connective tissue in meat)
  • chicken fat
  • mechanically separated meat (the tissue normally left on the bone which has been removed by machine or high pressure water jets).

Also look for added ingredients like starches, sugars, milk protein or just added water (added because manufactures say you prefer ‘succulent’ and not dry meat).

Something that can give you an idea of the quality of what you are buying is the meat content. Imagine a home-cooked ham joint. When baked or roasted, it will lose water when cooked. So a joint that began as 1.3kg could weigh only 1kg after cooking (meat content 130%). So the ‘meat content’ % is the weight of the raw meat divided by the weight of the finished product. For example, fresh ‘hams’ in a supermarket can range from 80% to 112% meat, while tinned ham can be a low as 55%.


So the key question to ask yourself are: 

  • Is it pure meat?
  • Has anything been added?
  • How much meat does it actually contain?

So here’s a test to end with...

You see a pack of ‘Ready-to-Eat Sliced Roast Chicken Breast’. The pack carries a picture of a golden brown, cooked bird and the claim ‘No artificial preservatives, flavours or colours’. Must be chicken meat, pure and simple. Right?

Wrong! A close look at the ingredients list on the back of the pack reveals the meat has been injected with phosphates and contains wheat protein, potato starch, rice flour and vegetable oil.