‘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.

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.

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.

Supersize Me

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.

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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."

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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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Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

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An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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