Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Burgers

© Philip Park / Adobe Stock

In the early stages of brainstorming this seasonal food series, our thoughts were on seasonal vegetables. Meat has seasons too, but with the advent of modern agriculture - and freezers - today, all manner of meat products are available year round. Most of us still do think of certain animal products at certain times of year, but usually in relation to holidays (eggs in April, turkey in November, etc). So with Memorial Day weekend approaching, it's time for a post about burgers.

Estimates vary, but Americans put back at least several billion of them each year (a quick internet search shows 13 and 14 billion as the most common approximations). Patty contents vary; many fast food joints offer veggie burgers these days, and fancier burger joints like NYC's Bareburger offer exotic meats like elk, ostrich and bison. But the majority are still made from ground beef, a product that took a major beating in the press a few years back, with massive consumer outcry over "lean finely processed beef" (more widely known as "pink slime") that led to the shutdown of three plants that produced the questionable product. Will the ick factor kill Americans' burger fetish? Not likely. So let's take a look at one of the world's favorite foods.

A Brief History of The Burger

The origin of the hamburger, like that of most peasant food, is not easy to track. It's been linked to invading Mongols carrying raw meat under their saddles as they rode long distances, thus tenderizing it. It's said that tenderized beef spread from there to Russia, and eventually Germany (Hamburg, as you may have guessed). But the modern burger is better known as an American food, and it's said to have been popularized in the 18th century in New York cafés, where it was served to attract sailors who'd spent time in one of Germany's popular ports, including (right again!) Hamburg.

The first burger appeared on US restaurant menus as early as the 1820s, but the Library of Congress attributes the first American Hamburger to a Connecticut restaurant called Louis' Lunch (in 1895). The burger likely took a major dip in popularity with the 1906 release of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which unsurprisingly turned a lot of people off to chopped meat. It took another hit after WWI due to anti-German sentiment (when it was temporarily named "Salisbury Steak") but was revitalized by White Castle, which marketed the tiny burgers known as sliders in the 1920s. McDonald's got into the game in the 1940s, industrialized the process of cooking and serving them, and the rest, as they say, is juicy, beefy, history.

Burger Food Safety and Nutrition

But Upton Sinclair was on to something. In general, the meat industry's increasingly industrialized production methods and the concentration of processing has increased the risk of foodborne illness, which has also been exacerbated by changes in feed, and a powerful industry resistant to government inspections. For more, see Micheal Moss's 2009 Pulitzer-winning New York Times article, The Burger That Shattered Her Life. And our own Urvashi Rangan gives you the scoop on how to choose safer ground beef

The Case for Grassfed Burgers

In terms of food safety, grain-fed cattle have an increased risk of E. coli because cattle are ruminants, meaning that they have evolved to eat grass and other forage, not the grain diet served up in modern feedlots or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Even research conducted by scientists who deem grassfeeding "an impractical approach"  supports the theory that feeding cattle grass or hay greatly decreases the risk of E. coli infection.

Cooking your burger well and cleaning any surface that comes into contact with raw meat helps minimize food safety risks, but we think industry - and government - can do better to improve the safety of our food supply.

Other Burger-Related Health Concerns

America's love affair with the burger may be a long one, but there are few foods more emblematic of an unhealthy, fast food diet, though this may say more about who's preparing it than the concept of the dish itself. That said, unfortunately, that delicious char-broiled taste is not so good for you. From the Consumers Union:

"Grilling can transform amino acids and other natural substances in the foods into compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Some studies suggest that regularly ingesting these and other compounds might affect food safety by increasing the risk of breast, colon, pancreatic, prostate and stomach cancer."

The Consumers Union suggests a few strategies to avoid the formation of HCAs, including keeping the grill temperature low, not grilling directly over the flame and microwaving burgers before grilling to shorten the cooking time. Kim O'Donnel also tells us that adding herbs and dried cherries counteracts carcinogens, too. Check out Kim's recipe, below. 

More Love for Grassfed Beef

Food safety concerns aside, grassfed beef also makes sense from a nutritional perspective, as it contains seven times the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids as its grainfed counterpart, has exactly the perfect ratio of Omega 3s to Omega 6s, has lower fat content in general and is loaded with vitamins and nutrients.

Factual Nibbles

  • In 2006, Kansas-based Creekstone Farm sued the USDA after the agency threatened to prosecute its owners for testing its own beef for BSE. The USDA, which regulates testing, monitors only one percent of slaughtered cattle, but still bans producers from testing their own products.
  • Ground beef manufacturers can inject their product with carbon monoxide, which makes it maintain that pinkish-red color. Cuh-razy.

Ground Beef Production

According to the American Meat Institute, the US alone consumes about 7.5 billion pounds of ground beef annually, an amount that takes no small toll on our environment. Compared to vegetables or even smaller animals, beef requires significant resources in terms of feed and water, and the factory farm system under which the vast majority of beef is produced causes significant environmental damage, including air and water pollution and soil degradation.

The 2006 UN FAO study Livestock's Long Shadow famously reported that the livestock sector accounts for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and 8 percent of global water use.

Industry research has countered the UN report with research suggesting that intensive livestock production makes more efficient use of natural resources and also creates fewer GHGs than its grassfed counterpart, but a recent report, What's Your Beef? from the UK's highly reputable National Trust suggests that indeed, grassfed beef is more environmentally sound, partly through demonstrating that grazed land helps to sequester carbon, off-setting the emissions of the animals grazing it. And though the public debate has largely focused on them over the past few years, GHG emissions are just one of the environmental impacts of beef production - and maybe not even the most important (see water pollution, other air pollutants, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, etc.).

The water footprint of conventional beef has been hotly contested as well, ranging from industry numbers as low as 440 gallons per pound of beef to 12,000. But compared to other kinds of meat (and vegetables particularly), even the lower end of these figures represent a substantial amount of water in return for a small amount of food.

What to Look for

If all this hasn't killed your appetite for a good burger, here's the deal. In general, we recommend eating all animal products in moderation, and opting for higher quality meat, (which for beef means it should be grassfed). To reduce your meat consumption, check out Meatless Monday for inspiration! You can also cut down on the meat you eat by mixing in veggies (like mushrooms) with your meat mixture - here are some tips from the Better Burger Challenge. 

When possible, buy direct from a farmer or rancher who raises animals on pasture - not only will the beef you buy be better for you and the environment, but you'll also be helping to support your local economy. If you're shopping at your local supermarket, see below the recipe for a breakdown on beef labels.

Beef Label Breakdown

Animal Welfare Approved is the gold standard when it comes to meat labels. As relates to beef, AWA requirements include that cattle have continual access to clean, unpolluted pasture, and must only be removed from said pasture in the event of extreme weather (noting that animals "who have been properly selected for the specific climate conditions will voluntarily choose to go outdoors in all but the most extreme weather"). No clones or genetically engineered animals. Animals may be treated with antibiotics in the case of illness (no sub-therapeutic antibiotics), but treated animals may not go to slaughter "before a period of time has passed that is at least twice the licensed withdrawal period of the antibiotic used." Cattle must be fed a minimum of 70% forage (not grain),  and diets must be non-GMO when possible and must not include animal by-products of any kind.

USDA labels

  • Grass fed (USDA). Animals must have continuous access to pasture and receive a diet consisting strictly of forage (no grain or grain byproduct).
  • Natural (USDA). The product is minimally processed and contains no artificial colors or ingredients. With regard to meat, the "natural" label speaks only to what happens to the product after slaughter, not before, so it tells you nothing about how the animal was raised, what it ate, etc.
  • No Hormones. (USDA). Producers must document that animals were raised without hormones.
  • No antibiotics (USDA). Producers must document to the agency that animals were raised without the use of antibiotics.

Recipe: Cherry-studded, Herbed and Spiced Burgers

by Kim O'Donnel, originally published in USA Today

1 pound ground beef, turkey or lamb
34 teaspoon kosher salt
1 12 to 2 teaspoons dried oregano
12 to 34 teaspoon paprika or your favorite ground chile pepper
14 cup dried tart cherries, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil, for brushing

1. Place all of the ingredients except the oil in a medium bowl and mix until well combined. For slider-style burgers, measure meat in 14-cup portions; for larger burgers, measure in 12-cup portions.
2. Transfer patties to a tray and brush with oil on both sides. Cook on a hot grill, turning once only, until desired doneness, using an instant-read thermometer. (Medium is about -- 135 degrees; well done is 160.)

Serve with your favorite condiments and fixings, but do yourself a favor and taste one without extras to appreciate the oregano earthiness and the sweet-tartness of the cherries.

Note: It's always a good idea to wash your hands before cooking, but it's particularly important before and after handling raw meat. So is washing all tools and work surfaces after using. (Editor's note: Your mother and Ecocentric thank you.)

Servings: Makes 7 to 8 sliders or 3 to 4 larger burgers


This post was originally published in June 2012.