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Making a Better Burger : Health: The advent of super-lean ground beef may hasten the day when hamburgers are considered among the healthiest protein sources.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Consumer health concerns have spurred a dramatic reduction in the fat content of America’s favorite meat item: ground beef. And the results--super-lean products containing only 3% fat--are being seen in school cafeterias, fast-food chains and supermarket meat cases.

The innovations, although limited to a mere handful of meat producers, hasten the day when hamburgers might be considered among the nation’s healthiest protein sources. Most important, consumer taste tests conducted by at least two universities demonstrate that fat is apparently being cut without an accompanying decline in flavor and texture.

“I think (the advancements) have a lot of promise in terms of new product technology,” says Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the Western States Meat Assn., an Oakland-based trade group. “We are always interested in finding new ways of addressing what consumers need. . . . This is exciting and generating a lot of interest.”

The super-lean products were the industry’s response to criticism of supermarket ground beef, which averages 22% fat. Competition from ground poultry products, with their inherently lower fat content, was also a factor.

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(Research indicates that diets high in saturated fat contribute to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Health officials recommend that no more than 33% of the calories in a typical day’s diet come from fat.)

On average, Americans ate an estimated 28.2 pounds of ground beef in 1989, or far more than any other meat cut or product.

The movement to change ground beef’s nutritional profile received an important boost in October when the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked manufacturers to formulate a 10%-fat hamburger for use in the National School Lunch Program. The agency has been under fire for some time from consumer groups to limit the fat content of federally subsidized school meals. Several firms have since submitted ground beef products for the USDA’s review and a selection is expected in February.

Low-fat burgers gained further momentum last month when McDonald’s Inc., the fast-food giant, announced it was test-marketing a patty that contained only 9% fat. The McDonald’s product--Lean Deluxe--is available at 52 outlets in the Harrisburg, Pa. area.

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However, Lean Deluxe is only one promising development in the anti-fat campaign. One producer, Dakota Lean Meat, is claiming that its premium ground beef is currently averaging as little as 3% fat content, yet remains comparable in tenderness to the regular supermarket grind.

The Price Club, with 53 membership stores in California and the Western United States, is also offering a 93% fat-free frozen ground beef it developed in its National City, Calif. processing plant.

The key to successful fat reduction in ground beef, or any meat source, is maintaining flavor. A 100% fat-free burger might be wonderfully healthy, for instance, but it would lack the taste and juiciness consumers expect. A no-fat patty would also prove difficult to prepare properly and would almost certainly stick to cooking surfaces.

McDonald’s, Dakota and Price Club each achieved their fat reductions in different ways.

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The McDonald formula was pioneered at Auburn University in Alabama by Dale Huffman Ph.D, a professor of meat science. With beef industry funding, Huffman began developing a low-fat burger in 1987.

Auburn researchers selected very lean beef--the round muscles that were trimmed of all excess fat--as the basis for the experimental burgers. They achieved an 8%-fat burger but found the product “tough and dry,” Huffman said. “It’s simple to just take fat out of burgers, but they are not a good product (at that stage).”

The project’s breakthrough was the inclusion of carageenan, a seaweed-based additive that maintains the meat’s moisture during cooking. Carageenan is a common food additive that is also used to reduce fat in ice cream, yogurt and puddings. “A very small amount of carageenan--or 0.5% of total weight--is used to hold the moisture in place in order to get the desired juiciness,” Huffman said.

In taste tests, Huffman found that there was little consumer resistance to the presence of seaweed extract in their burgers. “The secret in the whole thing is flavor. There is a high correlation between the flavor of the patty and overall acceptance. And this is with no condiments,” Huffman said. Salt is also present as a flavor enhancer at a rate of 0.25% in the Auburn/McDonald burgers.

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McDonald’s officials report that consumer reaction to Lean DeLuxe, which sells for between $1.79 and $1.84, is “very favorable.” They caution that the test-marketing is barely one month old and it will be weeks before the low-fat burger’s potential is determined. In any event, the hamburger chain will not reformulate its mainstay products--Big Mac, McDLT or the Quarter Pounder--with the ground beef mixture used in Lean DeLuxe.

A representative of Dakota Lean Meats said the inclusion of carageenan, flavor enhancers or hydrolyzed vegetable protein is the easy way to produce lean ground beef.

The Winner, S.D.-based company has achieved its dramatic fat reductions through selective breeding of animals. Dakota Lean’s Marcella Hurley said that it has taken progressive advances through 15 generations of cattle to produce the meat sold under its brand name.

“Dakota Lean is raised to be sold only as Dakota Lean. It is not interchangeable with other beef and is genetically leaner,” she said. “There isn’t the fat present to trim.”

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Hurley said that recent laboratory tests found that the company’s ground beef has a 3% fat content. Because of federal labeling regulations, however, the firm’s packaging currently states that the meat is 93% fat-free.

Dakota Lean sells a full line of its trademark beef--at premium prices--through mail order at (800) 843-1300. Only 200,000 pounds of its ground beef is sold annually, and a small portion is available in food stores. Trader Joe’s in California, for instance, sells the brand for $2.49 a pound.

“There are a lot of pretenders in the marketplace,” Hurley said. “The trend is to go the way of McDonald’s and that is to inject (fillers or binders) into the meat. Our method is not cost-effective to follow for them . . . nor cost-effective for anyone else that wants 500,000 pounds a month.”

Despite the lack of binders such as carageenan or flavor enhancers such as salt, Hurley says that Dakota Lean ground beef makes a fine beef patty. Recent taste tests at Baylor University showed that Dakota Lean was comparable to regular-fat burgers, she said.

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A different approach is used by PCI Foods, a subsidiary of Price Club membership stores, for its Gibson’s Gourmet Ranch Beef.

The product, sold in frozen one-pound packages as 93% fat-free, is priced at $1.75. Since its introduction in late 1988, the extra-lean meat has outsold the chain’s regular ground beef.

“The future is definitely in lean beef,” said Jacob deGeus, general manager of the Gibson’s Ranch project for Price Club. “Sales, especially in California, are very much headed toward lower calories and fat . . . Why store the fat (in your refrigerator)? Why not buy a lean product?”

DeGeus said that the firm accomplishes its fat reductions with the use of meat from only New Zealand or Australian grass-fed bulls.

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Gibson’s Gourmet Ranch ground beef carries a caution that consumers should not overcook the product if it is used for patties because it will dry out, said deGeus. He recommends that the extra-lean beef be used instead in any dishes that call for ground meat, such as spaghetti sauce, chili or meat loaf. But Price Club stands behind the product regardless of how it is used and offers a refund for those dissatisfied with Gibson’s Gourmet.

“There are two things new about ultra-lean, extra-lean or extra-low-fat ground beef,” said Tom McDermott, vice president of the National Live Stock and Meat Board in Chicago. “The first is that it is happening or that producers are offering such a product and, secondly, that consumers are responding to it.”


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