YOCUMTOWN, Pa. — The world is divided between those who like the taste of grease and those who don't. Rick Asper likes it. Sherman Buchanan doesn't.
At a McDonald's wedged between an Econo Lodge and a Maple Donuts off Interstate 83, the two patrons are on opposite poles when it comes to the chain's new Lean Deluxe hamburger.
Buchanan likes it. Asper doesn't.
Hailed as a breakthrough that could reduce America's consumption of fat and reverse public attitudes about red meat, the Lean Deluxe was rolled out last month at 54 McDonald's restaurants here in the Harrisburg area.
Even fast-food's harshest critics applauded McDonald's new product. Phil Sokolof, the Omaha businessman who took out full-page ads in newspapers denouncing McDonald's for "poisoning America," called the Lean Deluxe "revolutionary."
Jayne Hurley, associate nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group, said it was "great news."
The leaner ground beef was developed by Auburn University in a project partially funded by the beef industry. One of the objectives set by the beef industry was that the technology be transferred to the marketplace, unlike much university research published in scientific journals only to sit on library shelves, according to Dale Huffman, a professor of meat science at Auburn and co-developer of the process.
The resulting Lean Deluxe is between 7.5% and 9% fat by weight, compared with between 19.5% and 22.5% fat by weight for any of McDonald's other patties.
The whole Lean Deluxe sandwich with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, catsup, mustard and bun contains 310 calories and 10 grams of fat. That's half the fat of a regular Quarter Pounder, and only about one-sixth of the fat recommended for a daily diet of 2,000 calories. Still, cautioned Hurley, it won't be a tremendous savings if you also order French fries and apple pie.
Ground beef that approximates the fat content of the Lean Deluxe patty is already available at supermarkets, according to Tom McDermott of the National Livestock and Meat Board.
But the leaner the hamburger meat, generally the drier it becomes after cooking. What's different about the Lean Deluxe is its promise to taste as juicy and flavorful as ground beef.
And the trick is this: The fat has been replaced with water (9% by weight) and a small amount (.5%) of carragenan. Used in food products such as hams and low-fat frozen desserts, carragenan is a powdery white vegetable gum derived from seaweed. It binds to water and helps retain moisture. So instead of draining from the meat when it is cooked, the water stays mostly intact, presumably keeping the burger juicy.
Here, however, Asper and his friend Michael Graham don't want water. They want fat.
The two run the area's food-service division for 7-Up, sampling soft drinks all day, checking to make sure the drinks are carbonated properly. When asked if they will participate in a taste test, Asper and Graham are finishing their lunches--and drinking Cokes.
Wearing Kelly-green 7-Up uniforms (no, they don't work for 7-Up, jokes Asper, "we just like the green pants."), they are faced with two seemingly identical burgers.
One is a McD.L.T. (without the cheese and mayonnaise), the other a Lean Deluxe. After a few bites of each, both men properly identify which is which, and both prefer the McD.L.T.
"It tasted greasier. Fat adds taste," says Graham. Giving new meaning to the term "balanced diet," Graham adds that he would order the Lean Deluxe again if he balanced it out with something high in fat, like an order of fries. (This is also a man who stopped buying the chain's milkshakes when they went low fat.)
Asper and Graham's reactions are just the opposite of Buchanan's, a former social worker who has drifted into McDonald's for a soft drink and a smoke.
When presented with the taste test, Buchanan picks out the Lean Deluxe almost immediately. Compared to the McD.L.T., "it had a lighter, less greasy taste," says Buchanan, a beefy man with an earlobe full of earrings. He likes it better.
While the three men's reactions show that fat is in the eye of the beholder, there have been plenty of people who haven't found the difference "overpowering," according to Pat Butala, the restaurant's first assistant. The difference is not as marked as "if you're a Coke drinker and someone gives you a Diet Coke," she says.
This may be particularly true if the burgers are not tasted side by side. Take Donald and Phyllis Miner of Etters, Pa., a retired couple who have come in for lunch and who both order the Lean Deluxe. "I didn't see a whole lot of difference," says Phyllis Miner, who usually orders a Quarter Pounder.
With the new product, McDonald's is trying to offer an option for people who ordinarily order something else, as well as grabbing new customers.