When convicted killer Lawrence Brewer was put to death in Texas last September, he requested a final meal so voluminous it prompted the state’s prison authorities to abolish the practice of letting inmates choose their last supper. His lavish spread included, among other things, a juicy hamburger.
Had he been around to read the newspapers a few months later, however, he might well have been convinced that the burger would have killed him before the lethal injection.
This follows an exhaustive 28-year study of more than 120,000 people by the Harvard School Of Public Health, whose findings suggest that anyone eating a burger-sized daily serving of red meat has an 18 per cent increased chance of dying from heart disease, and is 10 per cent more likely to die from cancer.
“Our study adds more evidence to the health risks of eating large amounts of red meat, which has been associated with heart disease, strokes and certain cancers,” said An Pan, lead author of the Harvard report. Ever quick to help, scientists dissecting the results have worked out that a daily burger equates to shaving half an hour off every day of the rest of your life. Or, if you prefer, it will have the same effects as smoking 14 cigarettes a week.
Health writer Elizabeth Lee explains why: “Some red meats are high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol,” she says, pointing out that high levels have been proved to increase the risk of heart disease. Cancer is more of a mystery, though many researchers agree that lashings of red meat does increase the danger.
The intimation that the meat between those two buns will all-too-quickly lead to the pearly gates should be enough to make even the most dedicated burger-lover start avoiding the butchers — but will it? Possibly not. Burgers are hard to resist.
ADDICTED TO MEAT
“Burgers are the ultimate comfort food,” says Tom Byng, creator of upmarket burger chain Byron. Byng knows a thing or two about the nation’s appetite,
as does Yianni Papoutsis, the force behind London restaurant sensation Meat Liquor. Papoutsis even remembers his first encounter with a burger. “It was a Big Mac, on the way back from school at the Streatham High Rd McDonald’s,” he says. “I’ll never forget that sweet and sour flavour from the sauce and the pickle, the warm, squishy bun, the tang of onions. It was a sort of rite of passage.”
When it comes to burgers, we’re addicted — literally. “A cheeseburger is like a speedball for your brain,” says nutritionist and author Dr Mike Dow. “You get a hit of fat from the beef, which releases dopamine in a similar way to cocaine.” Next, he explains, the white bun metabolises into sugar, releasing serotonin — just like when someone takes ecstasy. “It’s a double whammy,” he says.
It’s hard to fathom how something so right can be so wrong, but there are countless tempting foods that aren’t good for you, and burgers are by no means the worst offender. For the serious stuff, just head to the deli counter where the processed meats hang out. These are the true assassins of the culinary world — as graphically highlighted last July, when American health body the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine erected a billboard outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It showed a cigarette packet emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, but rather than cigarettes sticking out of the pack, there were hot dogs.
“The issue is cancer,” says Neal Barnard MD, the group’s president. “At least 58 scientific studies have looked at this and found the more hot dogs people eat, the higher the risk of colorectal cancer. And it’s not just hot dogs — it’s any sort of processed meat.”
There are danger-foods at every turn. According to Mike Adams, editor of Naturalnews.com. “If you eat lots of sugary snacks containing simple carbs, you’re loading your bloodstream with the chemical energy needed for cancer cells to proliferate.” He goes on to list doughnuts, fries and biscuits alongside processed meats and bacon as likely carriers of carcinogens and, once again, hot dogs get top billing. Fresh red meat, however, doesn’t get a mention.
Keen to throw water on to the red meat flames is Adam Bornstein, editorial director of health website Livestrong.com, who thinks the Harvard study is flawed, drawing attention to a line in the report that reads: “A higher intake of red meat was associated with lower intakes of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.” Could it be that the people eating themselves to death were not so much gorging on red meat, but rather denying themselves the more important foodstuffs?
Martha Grogan MD, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, says: “Beef that is 10 per cent fat or less can be part of a heart-healthy diet”. Kirsten Davies, founder of South Wales-based nutrition experts The Food Remedy, concurs: “The British Dietetic Association says that up to three ounces of lean red meat a day is acceptable,” she explains, adding that red meat is a good source of zinc, which is important for a healthy immune system. “The key, as with all foods, is variety and moderation,” she says.
The message, then, is to go easy — steer away from cheap cuts and the dreaded chemically treated ‘pink slime’ additive that has become a byword for bad eating. Instead, feed your burger fix in as healthy a way as possible — and for healthy, it usually pays to think pricey.
“If you’re going to a high-end gourmet place,” says nutritionist Dr Mike Dow, “and you’re getting a lean cut of beef that is grass-fed and free of processing, it’s acceptable to eat red meat regularly. Maybe a few times a week.”
It’s music to the ears of Tom Byng at Byron, who has helped steer the product on to more luxurious ground. “There’s been a realisation of the difference between an ordinary hamburger and a great one,” he says. “We had been living in the burger Dark Ages.”
The renaissance means lean, premium-grade beef and, if you’re smart, a sensible approach to toppings. Kept (reasonably) pure and taken as part of a balanced diet, burgers are not your worst enemy — and in any case, isn’t life too short to deny yourself one of its greatest culinary pleasures? Any death row inmate will tell you that.