"Seaweed?" Michael Jones squinted at the hamburger in his hand, held it out curiously.
"Seaweed? Really? Yeah, it tastes fishy, now that you mention it."
He laughed, took another bite of the 91 percent fat-free burger (with a little seaweed added for binder.) "No, not really, it's not fishy. But maybe that's why it's a little bland. It doesn't have quite as much flavor as the regular burger stuffed with fat."
It was lunchtime yesterday at the Cranbrook McDonald's, debut day for McDonald's "McLean Deluxe" that the giant chain is promoting as a "revolutionary" new way to eat your beef, and diet, too.
The McLean burger, now available in half the Baltimore metropolitan area's 90 McDonald's, will be in all stores by April 19, the national roll-out date. But nowhere in the glittery signs advertising the new product is mention of the hidden ingredient -- carrageenan, a seaweed extract that helps bind water to lean beef to keep the patty moist.
Actually, dryness was a criticism voiced by a number of samplers at McDonald's in Cockeysville, Timonium and Towson who tried the McLean burger for lunch yesterday. Not enough taste was also cited.
"It does lack a little flavor," said Lynette Jones (no relation to Michael), a clerk at the Timonium McDonald's on her lunch break.
"I don't like the taste, I'll stick with the Big Mac," complained
Robert McKinney, lunching at an adjoining table.
However, another common reaction was that of John Stabile, who tried the McLean Deluxe at the Towson McDonald's. "It's OK," he said. "It tastes about the same as any other McDonald's burger. I would get it again."
Don't let the carrageenan scare you off, said Jayne Hurley, nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer interest group that has been critical of high-fat menus in the fast-food industry.
"We're pleased that McDonald's has introduced the first lowfat hamburger ever," Ms. Hurley said. "This new burger has half the fat of the lean ground beef in the supermarket. McDonald's did it by replacing the fat with water and using a perfectly safe vegetable gum, carrageenan, to bind it together.
"People shouldn't be scared into thinking they're eating something unsafe or unusual. Carrageenan has been used in the food industry for years, in cakes, cookies, candies, ice cream."
The 9 percent fat content in the McLean Deluxe compares to about 20 percent in McDonald's other burgers. "The potential here is great if you can cut the fat in half, as McDonald's did, and get it on the supermarket shelves," Ms. Hurley said. "The No. 1 source of total fat and artery-clogging saturated fat in the American diet is hamburger."
But industry watchers and competitors are generally taking a wait-and-see attitude before they jump on the McLean bandwagon.
"I think a great many chains, large and small, are going to be watching this because everything that McDonald's does is news and they have a very successful track record," said Thomas A. Strenk, managing editor of Restaurant Business magazine. "On the other hand, McDonald's sort of rushed into this, only test-marketing it for a couple of months, and they might have been too hasty in bowing to pressure of consumer demand.
"It will probably never replace the Quarter Pounder and their regular burgers," Mr. Strenk added. "It's aimed at the veto power, the person in the group who doesn't want to go to a fast-food place because everything is too fattening."
McDonald's shouldn't expect the new burger to pull in new customers, said Jack Maxwell, a fast-food industry analyst for Wheat First Securities, Inc., an investment firm. "People who eat this will probably give up another McDonald's product," he noted.
In fact, McDonald's is in the process of phasing out its McDLT, the burger with lettuce and tomato. The 320-calorie McLean Deluxe comes with lettuce and tomato (along with pickle, ketchup, mustard, onions and a side packet of lo-cal mayonnaise).
In most stores in this area the McLean costs $1.89 ($1.99 with cheese), which Mr. Maxwell sees as another potential problem for the product. "It's a premium product and that's not the way they need to go," he said. "The whole thing now is pricing. People want a good product and a good deal."
Competitors, as might be expected, are minimizing the McLean impact. "They are telling you of this enormous breakthrough and it's not," said Dennis Lynch, a spokesman for Wendy's International. "This will have no effect on the burger market."
"Our customers have told us consistently that they don't want a leaner burger at the expense of taste," said Michael Evans, a spokesman for Burger King. He cited Burger King's pre-packaged salads and its "wildly successful" broiled chicken sandwich as healthy alternatives for fat-watchers. "We believe that when you come to Burger King you want 100 percent beef," he said of burger eaters.
Hardee's also emphasized the pure-beef theme. The chain is now test-marketing an all-beef quarter-pound burger with 12.8 grams of fat (compared to 10 in the McLean).
"We squeezed the meat as lean as we could and are cooking it at lower temperatures so it doesn't lose juiciness," said John D. Merritt, a Hardee's spokesman. "We would never put an additive in our product like McDonald's did. We think that's skating on the edge with the marketplace. We're not going to fall into that trap for 2 grams less fat."
As far as McDonald's response to critics and competitors, a reporter's calls yesterday to McDonald's corporate headquarters were not returned.
And the tastiest burger is . . .
Six volunteers compared McDonald's McLean Deluxe with its Quarter Pounder in a taste-test yesterday. All but one preferred the Quarter Pounder, labeling the McLean dry and tasteless.
According to one unimpressed taster, the McLean Deluxe is "as bad as . . . the last, murderously overcooked burger to be taken off the grill at the church picnic."
The majority said the Quarter Pounder was juicier, more firm and more flavorful. One eater described it as "full-bodied and savory."
The lone dissenter, however, said the McLean Deluxe "won hands down, possessing crisp lettuce, a tangy tomato and a nice blend of mustard and ketchup in a proportion that only McDonald's seems to have mastered."