THEY SAY YOU SHOULD NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. BUT, WHAT ABOUT FOOD? SHOULD WE JUDGE FOOD BY ITS COVER?
When you really think about it, there is nothing foundationally wrong with many of our most popular American comfort foods. Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Tacos, Pizza can be more than just delicious comfort foods if they are made using a combination of high quality ingredients and techniques that result in their safest and most nourishing versions possible. But, like with everything else, the modern food system has taken our favorite foods, bastardized them for the sake of financial gain, and now produces incredibly unhealthy, cheap, easy to produce American versions. We all eat them all up – literally. And, our health suffers as a result.
We all know this. This is not new information. No one considers McDonalds or Taco Bell or Pizza Hut health food.
But, what I am responding to here are the mid- and high-range restaurants offering “gourmet” versions of these foods. And, even the versions of these foods that we make in our home kitchens or on our backyard grills for our families. Take, for instance, burgers. In recent years gourmet burger joints have been popping up all over the place that promise high-end burgers made from the high quality beef and crazy topping combinations. Over the years many of these burgers have transitioned from CAFO beef shipped across the country (or world!) to local grass fed versions. Toppings can include everything from “no nitrates added” thick cut maple cured bacon to “house-made” sauces. Even a quick search on Google for “gourmet burger” will reveal hundreds of combinations of expensive grass fed meats, the occasional rare cheese, odd offerings from the produce section (jalapeno pineapple burger topped with avocado anyone?), and complex sauces. There is a restaurant near me that offers ground lamb burgers with feta cheese. The other night I even had a burger topped with foie gras at another restaurant. But, nevertheless, I am always left disappointed. Not because of the meat, or even as a result of the strange combination of flavors that, believe it or not, sometimes actually work. But instead because, the focus on the quality of the inside of the burger fades as it moves outward.
No matter how healthy, delicious, ethical and sustainable the heart of the burger, the default is almost always cheap buns. And, more often than not, even the most decadent of burgers are topped with American Cheese. Bottles of Heinz 57 ketchup and packets of Hellman’s “real” mayonnaise adorn the table. What gives? Does the fact that they contain locally sourced, single animal ground beef outweigh the negative health effects of the rest of the burger?
The truth is that we have set the bar so low on these foods that any improvement on any part of them is seen as “gourmet” when in reality they remain incredibly unhealthy and, frankly, disappointing… Our attention spans are so short and our reliance on convenience in our food system so strong that any buzzword such as local, organic, and grass-fed immediately conveys enough of an assurance of health and sustainability that we fool ourselves into thinking we are making the best choices possible and any further discussion is seen as “nitpicking” or an inconvenience, or… something we leave it to the “foodies”(as if that is a bad word) to go down the rabbit hole. The reality is that sourcing high quality, ethical and sustainable meat is not the end of the story, but just the beginning. Spending $20 on a burger made from locally sourced grass-fed beef, topped with American Cheese, Heinz 57, Hellman’s Mayonnaise and a Martin’s Potato Roll is not healthy. Not even close. It is not something to feel good about and purchasing this burger did very little to actually improve our health or the health of the planet. Nor did it make any real change in the modern food system. Helping improve the ethical treatment of animals, sustainability in the meat industry and support for local farmers/ranchers, abattoirs and butchers is all amazing and worthwhile. But, it is not enough. There is so much more to do…
THREE SIMPLE STEPS TO ENSURING YOUR “GOURMET BURGER” MADE WITH LOCALLY-SOURCED, GRASS FED BEEF IS HEALTHY:
- Learn about the condiments/sauces – even the most “gourmet” of burgers use junk ketchups and mayonnaises that are filled with all sorts of cheap ingredients, unhealthy oils and sweeteners. At a minimum, make sure the ketchup does not contain high fructose corn syrup. Delicious ketchups can be made with no sugar whatsoever and instead use a little maple syrup or honey. Ketchup can also be fermented. Depending on what fat is used in its production, mayonnaise can be a healthy compliment to almost any food. But, almost all commercially available mayonnaises use harmful nut and seed oils like soybean and canola. Mayonnaises that rely on avocado oil or even lard or bacon grease are the way to go. Pay attention to “house made” sauces! Almost all of them rely on these cheap and unhealthy ketchups and mayonnaises as their base. Mustard, believe it or not, is almost always an okay choice because even the cheapest of mustards are simply made from a combination of mustard seed and vinegar.
- Watch out for the cheese! For some reason American Cheese has become the cheese of choice for even the most gourmet burger. Make no mistake…American cheese is NOT cheese. Not even close. Real cheese contains three ingredients (milk, rennet and salt) and is fermented using lactobacillus bacteria. That’s it. American cheese, on the other hand, contains over a dozen ingredients (sometimes as many as 17), is not fermented, and contains dangerous vegetable oils. It should not contain the word “cheese” anywhere on its label and has no place in our diets.
- Pay attention to the “cover.” What is the food encased in? If a burger or hot dog is made on modern, mass-produced, yeasted bread leave it alone! It doesn’t matter if it is potato bread, pretzel buns, or even brioche – if it is not real sourdough* then skip the bun all together.
*Most mass-produced breads, even those with the label “sourdough” are not genuine sourdough. They have not gone through the lengthy process of a combination of yeast and bacterial fermentations that transform the grains into their safest and most nourishing form for our bodies. Be sure of what you are getting.