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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 25, 2006

Building healthier burgers

By Charles Stuart Platkin

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Barbecue season is upon us, and that means burgers. This week I investigate how to make your burger better, healthier and tastier.


Burgers aren't exactly diet food. A 6-ounce burger has more than 400 calories. When you add the bun, mayo, cheese, ketchup, etc., you're up in the 700 to 800 range.

However, with a few smart choices, you can eat healthier. Start by choosing the right meat. The less fat (especially the "bad" saturated fat) there is, the fewer the calories.

  • Ground sirloin (6 ounces): 300 calories, 15 grams fat.

  • Ground round (6 ounces): 360 calories, 26 grams fat.

  • Ground chuck (6 ounces): 435 calories, 35 grams fat (and a half-day's worth of saturated fat).


    Leaner meats tend to dry out more during cooking and less fat means less flavor. So how can you improve the healthful burger's taste and texture?

  • Use vegetables and other fillers. Mix meat with chopped mushrooms, broccoli, peppers, water chestnuts, sun-dried tomatoes and onions you'll have the same size burger, but it will be lower in calories. Or mix the meat with egg whites (two per pound), bread crumbs, water, salt, pepper and onion and garlic powder.

  • Add herbs and spices, such as marjoram, thyme, chives and parsley or dry ground spices (black pepper, smoked paprika, cumin and cayenne), says John Greely, chef at New York's 21 Club, famous for its $30 burger.

  • Marinate. Let burgers marinate overnight in a low-calorie marinade such as Lawry's Herb & Garlic (3 tablespoons: 30 calories).

  • Cooking spray. Spray the burger itself so it won't stick but never over an open flame.

  • Style matters. According to Paul Gayler, author of "The Gourmet Burger" (Gibbs Smith, 2005), "Meat should be coarsely ground. Burgers fall apart when they're too finely ground, and the texture is less satisfying." Also, keep the meat loose. If you over-pack the patties, they will be less juicy. Burgers should be about an inch thick and have a slightly thinner center.

  • "Cook over medium-high heat. And don't press down with a spatula to speed up cooking. It dries out the burger," Gayler says.


    Using other meats or veggies to make your burgers may save you calories and fat:

  • Turkey and chicken burgers. If the burger's not from ground white meat, you might be better off with beef. A 6-ounce white-meat turkey burger has 195 calories and almost 1 gram of fat (0 saturated). But when your turkey burger is made from fattier parts of the turkey, a 6-ounce burger can run as high as 400 calories and 22 grams of fat.

  • Pork burger. Find lean ground loin (10 percent or less fat), 300 calories and 16 grams of fat (5 grams saturated) for 6 ounces. However, if you get ordinary ground pork (20 percent or more fat), watch out: You're looking at 450 calories and 36 grams fat (9 grams saturated).

  • Salmon burgers. These give you the benefits of omega-3s for 240 calories and 10 grams of fat (1.5 grams saturated) in a 6-ounce burger.

  • Veggie burgers. They're lower in calories and fat than any other choice (e.g. Boca Burger: 80 calories, 1 gram fat). Chef Michel Nischan, host of Pure & Simple on Lime TV, suggests other meat substitutes such as soy burgers or seitan patties.

    Also, chef Cary Neff's recipe for black-bean griddle patties from Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002) is a low-calorie treat. See the recipe at www.dietdetective.com/articles/food/recipe_light.html.


    Buns add anywhere from 110 (regular 1.5-ounce white bun) to 180 calories (kaiser roll). For more fiber, choose a 100-percent whole-grain bun. Another good choice is a whole-wheat English muffin (120 calories) or a light multigrain English muffin (100 calories), or 2 slices low-calorie 100 percent whole-grain bread (80 calories).


    Instead of cheese (70 to 120 calories a slice and plenty of saturated fat), add lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions or even celery. Or try "lite" or reduced-fat cheese. Fat-free single-serving slices have about 30 calories each. Also look for cheeses that are not reduced-fat but are thinly sliced (only 40 to 60 calories). Avoid bacon (70 or more calories per strip) or use turkey bacon at half the calories.

    Avoid mayo (100 calories per tablespoon); add ketchup, mustard, herbs and veggie toppings for extra flavor.


    Watch out for the obvious: fried potatoes, potato chips (150 calories per handful), coleslaw (more than 250 calories per cup), pasta salad (400 to 500 calories per cup).


    Most food-safety experts agree that mad cow disease poses a minuscule risk to U.S. consumers. However, food poisoning is possible, so avoid cross-contamination: Don't let raw meat touch foods that won't be cooked, and cook meats to the right temperature (160 degrees F for ground meats and pork; 165 for ground poultry). For information on food safety, see www.dietdetective.com/articles/food/food_concerns_that_matter.html.

    Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public-health advocate, and author of "Breaking the FAT Pattern" (Plume, 2006). Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at www.dietdetective.com.