When we think of summer, we think of a lot of things: the beach, baseball, tennis, boating, golf, picnics. But nothing has taken over the American dream of summer life quite like barbecue; burgers sizzling on grills all over the country fill the air with the scent of charred meat. And for most people, that is a perfume like no other. We have seen complete ad campaigns showing men standing over their grills, euphoric with joy, yelling out "meat!" Grilling has become synonymous with summer fun.
But wait! What about all the saturated fat, growth hormones, steroids and other nasty stuff that causes heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes lurking in that juicy flesh we love so much? Can we have our burgers and eat them, too?
It seems that a hyper-conscientiousness has taken over the American psyche when it comes to food. From organic food sales taking off like a rocket, to films like "Food, Inc.," the collective awareness of the effects of food on health has risen dramatically. And while the majority of Americans still hit the Golden Arches regularly, drink high-calorie Coolattas from Dunkin' Donuts and think KFC's dinner in a bucket is a good idea, there are voices that will not be silenced, that will not go away -- that refuse to let us lose our collective health because food quality is poor.
More and more people want to know what's in the food they choose, so we might as well begin with those burgers sizzling on the grill. What, exactly is in the meat you are eating? Is there more to your burger than meets the eye? Sadly, the answer is yes, but happily, there is a solution. And no, I am not going all vegan on you, suggesting organic lentil burgers with sprouts (although they are delicious and much more heart-healthy than even the healthiest organic meat-based burger).
It's time we knew what was in our food and made educated choices. When it comes to meat, the idyllic images we have of cows, pigs and chickens lazily grazing in sun-dappled pastures is far from the truth, even if the pictures on the labels imply otherwise.
The majority of meat production is now completely dominated by factory farms: Ninety-five percent of pigs, 78 percent of cattle and 99.9 percent of chickens to be precise. "Food, Inc." showed us, in graphic detail, the none-too-pretty journey from farm to table for most animals. In the majority of instances, animals are fed completely unnatural diets, which is part of the problem with conventional burgers. When cows are grass-fed and eating a diet natural to them (they are vegans, ironically...) their meat contains less than 2 grams of saturated fat per ounce, while grain-fed, factory-farmed cattle contain just under 10 grams of saturated fat per ounce. That's an astonishing difference and one of the reasons heart disease is associated with consumption of red meat. It's no small thing to consider the ramifications of about 12 grams of saturated fat in a six-ounce steak versus almost 60 grams.
But it doesn't end there.
Since the 1940's, factory farms have employed the use of nontherapeutic antibiotics for healthy animals to help ensure they do not get sick. See, the animals live in unnaturally tight quarters, so a sick one can infect the whole herd. So we dose them up before they become diseased rather than change the conditions in which they live. And these preventive drugs have another benefit, but again, hardly for the animal. Turns out, these antibiotics also make the animals fatter faster, which maximizes profits! So it's a win-win for the factory farm ranchers. They fatten animals quickly and offset the disgusting unsanitary conditions in which these creatures are forced to subsist until slaughter, packed into feedlots and confined enclosures where an enormous amount of feces serves as the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and disease to spread from one animal to another.
But if animal welfare can't sway you to organic meat, then how about this? The Union of Concerned Scientists says that about 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are not distributed by doctors, but by livestock producers. When a farmer can walk into a feed store and purchase a 100-pound bag of tetracycline, we need to worry about the quality of meat they are producing. As Jonathan Safran Foer points out in "Eating Animals," the factory farm system is dysfunctional, broken, unethical and destructive to the environment and human health. (See The Project Museum.)
So what are we to slap on our hot grills during these last waning days of summer fun? Well, in my view, organic meat is not the answer, but it's a step in the right direction (that direction being a plant-based diet with veggie and bean burgers sizzling on the fire). But for now, as you transition to a healthier way of eating, look for USDA certified organic meat that is grass-fed. It will cost you a pretty penny, but if you choose to eat meat, what is your health worth?
I agree with farm-to-table pioneer chef, Dan Barber. His own smart choices helped take the fresh-from-the-farm idea from fringe to cuisine. His advice includes not eating meat unless you know where it comes from. Locally produced, organic and grass-fed top his list.
How an animal was raised and what it was eating will become more and more important issues as we strive to make healthier choices for ourselves and the planet. Simply stated, if you aren't sure where your burger comes from, you might want to think twice about eating it.