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 Healthletter. 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 healthburgers," 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 the Nutrition 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 United States -- 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.