‘Better’ Burgers Still Unhealthy and Bad for the Climate
Like a lot of cities across the country, Washington has been overrun by so-called "better-burger" joints over the past few years. The granddaddy of this craze, Five Guys Burgers and Fries—which got its start here in the D.C. metro area back in 1986—has been joined by Black & Orange, Bobby's Burger Palace, BGR: The Burger Joint, Elevation Burger, Fuddruckers, Shake Shack and Smashburger, most with locations just a few blocks from my downtown condo.
Smashburger, the newest premium burger establishment in my 'hood, is the third-fastest growing U.S. chain, according to Nation's Restaurant News, an industry trade publication. Founded in 2007 by the former owner of the Quiznos sandwich chain, the Denver-based company expects to have more than 300 locations in 32 states and five foreign countries by the end of this year. That still pales in comparison to Five Guys, which has more than 1,100 locations nationwide and plans for 1,500 more.
These relatively new, better-burger "fast-casual" restaurants are enjoying stupendous growth, purportedly because Americans are looking for higher quality food than they can find at the big three traditional, "quick-service" chains, McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. Although the big three accounted for 70 percent of the $75.9 billion in U.S. burger sales in 2013, according to the market research firm Technomic, they have been steadily losing ground to more-upscale, fast-casual chains, including premium burger eateries. Last year, the top 25 better-burger chains totaled sales of $2.7 billion, a 12 percent jump from 2012.
But aside from stupendous growth, are better burgers really better than a Big Mac, a Whopper or Dave's Hot 'n Juicy?
Consumer Reports readers think so, at least when it comes to taste. Of the 21 burger chains cited in the magazine's July survey of the best and worst fast-food restaurants, McDonald's scored dead last, just ahead of Burger King. Wendy's, meanwhile, was ranked 16th, well behind Five Guys, Smashburger and Fuddruckers, which came in at 7, 8 and 9, respectively. (The California-based In-N-Out Burger was rated No. 1).
But there are more important issues to consider. Are better burgers better when it comes to your health or the health of the planet? The short answer is no. When judged by those standards, we would be better off if we ate fewer hamburgers, plain or fancy.
While beef consumption worldwide has been going up, Americans have cut back considerably since the mid-1970s, largely due to rising beef prices and a greater awareness of the health risks associated with consuming red meat. As of 2012, the average American was eating 52 pounds a year, about 30 pounds less than four decades ago. Regardless, we still consume more per capita than the citizens of every other country, excluding the beef emporiums of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Eating less beef is a good thing. After all, it's been linked to a host of potentially life-threatening problems, including coronary heart disease and breast, colon and prostate cancer. But instead of forsaking beef altogether, financially strapped Americans are eating more ground beef instead of steak and other pricier cuts. Our "hamburger economy" has, in turn, created a market for better-burger chains, which promise, well, better burgers.
Jayne Hurley, a registered dietician at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), cringes when she hears the food industry's better-burger label.
"These new upscale burger restaurants are serving more meat between the buns with at least twice the calories," Hurley said. "You would get a healthier meal at a traditional fast-food burger place like McDonald's or Burger King. The Big Mac and the Whopper look downright petite compared with the burgers coming out of these upscale burger joints."
In June 2010, Hurley and co-author Bonnie Liebman, CSPI's nutrition director, singled out Five Guys in their annual "Extreme Eating" feature in the organization's Nutrition Action Health letter. They reported that a Five Guys Hamburger sans toppings is 700 calories, considerably more than a Big Mac's 540 calories or a Quarter Pounder's 410 calories with everything. A Five Guys Bacon Cheeseburger, meanwhile, has 920 calories and 30 grams of saturated fat—one-and-a-half days' worth—without toppings. That's more calories than two Quarter Pounders.
"These places aren't serving health burgers," Hurley said. "And there are so many reasons not to eat beef. It's full of saturated fat, it's high in calories, it increases the risk of colon cancer and heart disease, and then there's the threat of E coli. We don't recommend eating it."
Grass-Fed Marginally Better than Grain-Fed
According to a 2013 Technomic survey, a significant percentage of Americans are looking for healthy menu options and are concerned about how their food is produced. The research firm found that 59 percent rated "socially responsible" as an important factor when deciding on a restaurant, 58 percent said they would prefer that restaurants serve meat and poultry raised without hormones or steroids, 45 percent favor free-range poultry and grass-fed beef, and 41 percent are looking for "natural" and "organic" fare.
To further differentiate themselves from traditional fast-food burger chains, some premium burger chains have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon. BGR: The Burger Joint, for example, trumpets that its burgers are from "grain-fed cattle; all natural, no hormones, fillers or antibiotics, and most importantly, they run free in the fields." Shake Shack's menu boasts that its burgers are "100-percent all-natural Angus beef, vegetarian-fed, humanely raised and source-verified. No hormones or antibiotics—ever." Elevation Burger goes even further, promising "100-percent USDA-certified organic, grass-fed, free-range beef."
Hormones and antibiotics aside, the biggest distinction when quantifying beef's marginal benefits to human health and nutrition—as well as a cow's well-being—is whether cattle end their brief lives in crowded, confined feedlots eating genetically modified corn and soybeans or spend all of their time on pasture eating grass and other forage crops, which is what they evolved eating. Feedlot cattle are prone to getting sick, so producers routinely feed them antibiotics, which also serve to accelerate growth. After they are weaned from their mothers and grazed on grass, most cattle are shipped to feedlots to fatten them up quickly on a grain diet.
If you're going to eat beef, you want the grass-fed variety. A 2010 study in theNutrition Journal reviewed three decades of research comparing the nutritional profiles of grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. It turns out that grass-fed beef has lower levels of unhealthy fats and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are better for cardiovascular health. It also has lower levels of dietary cholesterol and provides more vitamin A and E, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Not many better-burger chains offer grass-fed beef, however, because there's not a lot of it around—making it more expensive—and because it has a "grassy" flavor that Americans accustomed to fatty, grain-fed beef find unfamiliar. Elevation Burger, which has 33 restaurants in 11 states and D.C., is the lone grass-fed burger purveyor in my town, and a cursory Internet search turned up only three other premium burger chains featuring grass-fed beef: Bareburger, with 19 locations in four states; Burger Lounge, with more than a dozen locations in California; and Yeah! Burger, which has two locations in Atlanta.
Beef is the Worst Meat for the Climate
Before you begin searching high and low for a grass-fed burger, however, there is something else to consider. Free-range, grass-fed cattle may be slightly better for your health than those that are "grain-finished" at feedlots, but both are bad for the climate.
Agriculture accounts for about 6 percent of total U.S. global warming emissions, and beef production alone accounts for 2.2 percent of the total, according to a 2011 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report, "Raising the Steaks." That's roughly equivalent to the annual heat-trapping emissions from 33 average-sized coal-fired power plants. Beef cattle and stored cattle manure also are responsible for 18 percent of U.S. methane emissions, which have nearly 25 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. So while the emissions from beef production may seem relatively small, it is not an insignificant part of the problem.
"The more beef Americans eat, the worse global warming gets," said Doug Boucher, director of UCS's Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative. "Americans would protect their health and the climate if they replaced beef with poultry or pork—or ate less meat altogether."
Beef is what scientists call an "inefficient protein," Boucher said. It requires substantial resources to produce compared with what it contributes to the human diet. A 2012 UCS study Boucher co-authored, "Grade A Choice? Solutions for Deforestation-Free Meat," found that beef production uses about 60 percent of the world's agricultural land, but produces less than 5 percent of the protein and less than 2 percent of the calories that feed the global population.
A July study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which focused specifically on the United States, echoed Boucher et al.'s analysis. It found that beef requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water to produce than the equivalent calories from pork or poultry, and produces at least five times more carbon pollution. The contrast between beef and such staples as wheat, rice and potatoes is even more stark. Beef requires 160 times more land and results in 11 times more heat-trapping emissions.
The U.S. beef industry is not convinced.
"The PNAS study represents a gross over-simplification of the complex systems that make up the beef value chain, a point which the authors acknowledge," Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said in a statement. "The fact is the U.S. beef industry produces beef with lower greenhouse gas emissions than any other country."
Stackhouse-Lawson is not entirely off base. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from livestock in the United States and other developed countries peaked in 1970 and have fallen 23 percent since then, according to a July study in the journal Climatic Change. That decline, however, has been offset by rising livestock emissions in developing countries, which more than doubled, largely due to increased domestic demand for meat. The study found that worldwide livestock emissions jumped 51 percent from 1961 to 2010. Beef cattle were responsible for more than half of the emissions, followed by dairy cattle at 17 percent.
That doesn't let Americans off the hook, however. Even though we're eating less beef these days—which explains the drop in U.S. livestock emissions—we're still No. 1 in the total amount of tonnage. Last year, we put away 11.6 million metric tons of beef and veal, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Brazil was a distant second at 7.9 metric tons, and the European Union's 28 member countries—which collectively have a larger population than the U.S.—came in third at 7.6 metric tons.
Americans' love affair with beef has consequences beyond our borders. According to Boucher's 2012 study, U.S. beef consumption helps drive tropical deforestation, which is now responsible for about 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions. As demand for beef goes up worldwide, so does deforestation.
If U.S. consumers ate less beef, Boucher explained, U.S. producers would have more to export to other countries. And those exports would displace exports from Latin American beef producers, reducing incentives to cut down tropical rainforests for cattle pasture land.
"The bottom line is U.S. demand for beef plays a substantial role in global markets," Boucher said. "If U.S. consumers want to eat 'better' burgers, they should consider turkey burgers, veggie burgers and other alternatives. All of those are much better for the environment, whether you're talking about climate emissions, land use, water use or nitrogen pollution.
"Lowering demand," he added, "also could help cut production here at home, where beef cattle account for more than a third of all U.S. agricultural heat-trapping emissions."
Ken Caldeira, a co-author of the July Climatic Change study, wound up coming to the same conclusion Boucher and his colleagues did two years ago.
"The tasty hamburger is the real culprit," Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, said in a July 21 press release. "It might be better for the environment if we all became vegetarians, but a lot of improvement could come from eating pork or chicken instead of beef."
Elliott Negin is the director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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