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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.