IS THERE a healthy hamburger in our future?
Nutrition experts are skeptical, noting that foods high in saturated fats have been shown to contribute to heart disease and the risk of certain cancers. And a typical hamburger today is 20 to 30 percent fat.
But Americans love their beef, and they're not likely to give it up, especially not ground beef. Indeed, 44 percent, or about 3 billion pounds, of the beef consumed in this country each year is ground beef, according to the Beef Industry Council.
With these facts in mind, there's been a growing effort of late to get the fat out of beef. Research and recipes on reduced-fat beef abound. Most recently, a Boston University biophysicist suggested in the New England Journal of Medicine that consumers reduce the cholesterol and saturated fat in ground beef by soaking it in hot vegetable oil and then rinsing it with boiling water.
Ingenious, perhaps, but most people pulling a pound of ground beef out of the fridge don't want to stop to de-fat it before cooking it.
Besides, the problem isn't so much getting rid of fat, says Dan Hale, a researcher at the Department of Animal Science at Texas University. "The problem is taste," he says. "The leaner you get the beef, the less flavorful it is."
The topic of low-fat ground beef is so hot that last month researchers met in Baton Rouge, La., in a two-day conference sponsored by the National Live Stock and Meat Board. Beef producers and distributors from around the country were introduced to the latest technology in getting out the fat.
And healthy burgers got a boost recently when the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked researchers to come up with a hamburger with less than 10 percent fat for use in the national school lunch program. Four of the most promising products -- mixing beef with everything from seaweed derivative to oat flakes -- are getting a trial run at selected schools across the country this spring, says Herb Abraham of the USDA.
Here in Maryland, Ailene Waranch thinks she has the answer. Waranch owns Smart Beef, an Owings Mills-based firm that locally markets beef that is "93 percent fat-free." Smart Beef comes in about 10 different cuts, including ground beef, and is sold in Farm Fresh stores in the Baltimore-Frederick area.
Smart Beef is one of a handful of products nationally that are the result of breeding and/or feeding cattle to get leaner beef. Waranch purchases beef from ranchers in the West and Midwest with strict stipulations that the cattle be "range animals fed on mostly prairie grass and limited grains," she says.
"These cattle aren't given any hormones or steroids, and no antibiotics are put in their feed to enhance their growth." The animals are sent to slaughter much younger than average, to preclude their "fattening up," she adds.
A 3 1/2 -oz. Smart Beef hamburger weighs in at 7 percent fat and 150 calories, says Waranch. Compared to that, a USDA "extra lean" ground beef patty may be as much as 22.5 percent fat and contains about 230 calories.
The difference in nutritional content apparently makes a big difference to the customer, says John Shnay, who runs the meat department at the Hamilton Avenue Farm Fresh. Even at $2.99 a pound for Smart Beef -- about $1 a pound more than other brands of ground beef in the area -- supply of the new product can't always keep up with demand, he says.
There just aren't enough producers out there in the business of raising lean beef, says researcher Hale. And what is out there is not available in quantities large enough to stock, say, fast-food .. establishments.
That's where the "Auburn lean" patty comes in. It was developed by Auburn University researchers who essentially figured out a way to take the fat out of ground beef, replace it with water and add a binder to maintain the moisture and texture consumers are used to.
The Auburn technology is the basis for the McLean Deluxe, a beef sandwich McDonald's is test marketing at about 350 outlets around the country.
The key to Auburn's success is a -- of carrageenan, says Dale Huffman, professor of animal science and chief researcher on the project. A red seaweed derivative that has been widely used in foods from hot dogs to ice cream, carrageenan helps seal in the moisture of ground beef during cooking. Huffman also adds a little salt and hydrolyzed vegetable protein for flavor, "but they're optional," he says.
The Auburn patty weighs in at 7 1/2 to 9 percent fat. And its recipe is no secret, says Huffman, whose project was partially funded ++ by the Meat Board. "Our whole objective is to move this technology from the lab into the marketplace," he says.
McDonald's picked up Auburn's technology last fall, put its own twist on it and began selling it in the Harrisburg, Pa., area. In December, the fast-food giant expanded the test market to cities in Ohio, Minnesota, Oregon and Tennessee.
The McLean Deluxe is giving the quarter-pounder a run for its money, says Alan Hassman, who owns eight McDonald's outlets in the Harrisburg-York area. "The response from the public has been better than we anticipated," he says.
The McLean is said to be 100 calories lighter than the quarter-pounder and has less than half as much fat. But Hassman points out that many McLean buyers prefer to order their sandwich with cheese.
The ultimate solution to healthy hamburger is to get ranchers to raise leaner cattle to begin with, says J.O. Reagan of the Meat Board. "And there still is not a lot of incentive to do that," he says, noting that over the years the beef business has been built on the rule that bigger is better.
"We are hoping to develop a system of lean-based marketing where producers would be paid more on leanness and the quality of animals they are producing," he says, but it won't happen overnight.
In the meantime, beef marketers will continue to "carve out a niche where there is demand," says Reagan. And consumers may see even more creative beef products before the burger battle is over. "Everybody's out there doing their own thing."