Healthy Burgers

The all-beef burger is as popular as ever. But a stampede of proteins—from land, sea and garden—are gaining ground.

Low-fat and veggie burgers have become the burger of choice for many Americans. Many quick-serve restaurant chains are offering veggie burgers and low-fat alternatives nationally and internationally. Sports stadiums, entertainment venues and corporate foodservice have gotten on the “healthy burger” train as well.

America’s biggest corporations are offering low-fat and veggie burgers in their company dining services. The Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine recently listed some of them: Daimler-Chrysler, General Motors, Texaco, Procter and Gamble, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Phillip Morris, Hewlett-Packard, Metropolitan Life Insurance, State Farm and Mobil Corp.

It seems low-fat and veggie burgers are making fast fans of many former bacon double cheeseburger lovers.

Beyond beef: Lest you think that beef is the meat of choice for burgers, think again. Burgers are being created with chicken, turkey, salmon, buffalo, veal and vegetables, as well as any of the above blended with beef. The Sheraton Inn in Seattle, for example, offers a salmon burger served with a choice of condiments including a lemon dill mayonnaise.

Mother’s Restaurant in Irvine, Calf., offers several veggie burgers, including a bean and grain burger and a potato and lentil selection. Pace University in New York City offers salmon and poultry burgers on a regular basis, as does Hemet College in San Bernardino, Calf.

Chicken and turkey burgers are available as a frozen, ready-to-use menu item. The usual foodservice size is a three- to six-ounce portion. Figure approximately 55 calories per ounce for lean chicken and turkey burgers.

Chicken and poultry burgers are neutral palettes, ready to be seasoned. Add red pepper flakes, white pepper and cilantro for a Southwestern flavor; bell pepper, tomato puree and garlic for a Mediterranean flavor; or liquid smoke for a Mesquite-style burger.

Seafood works well in burger form. Crab cakes can be “beefed” up with other flaky fish (such as halibut or turbot), bread crumbs, veggies and fresh dill. Frozen or canned salmon and tuna can be made into seafood burgers with fresh or dried bread crumbs or flavored mashed potatoes. Chopped onions, carrot, celery, zucchini or grated beets add texture, flavor and color.

If making seafood burgers from scratch, mix the raw ingredients, shape the burgers and allow to chill, covered, in the refrigerator for at least an hour. This will give a moister burger that is less likely to crumble when cooked. In addition to grilling, seafood burgers can be oven-baked with good results.

Cherry nice: “Big and juicy” doesn’t have to mean “cholesterol city.” Nutrition-savvy chefs have found many ways to keep them juicy without adding fat. A deli owner in Washington State found a way to cut the fat in burgers and incorporate his state’s famous cherries. He found that substituting one-quarter of the meat with fresh cherry pulp keeps the color, texture and juice of the burger and cuts the fat by 25%.

The USDA now allows school foodservice operators to substitute chopped prunes or prune puree for some of the beef in burgers. Both cherries and prunes add texture, moisture and nutrients without adding fat or sodium or detracting from meat flavor.

If cherries or prunes are not your cup of tea when it comes to burgers, take out some of the meat and add soy, tomato products, egg whites combined with fresh bread crumbs, or minced fresh vegetables.

Or perhaps you’ll scrap the meat and go with a veggie burger instead. High in fiber and vitamins and low in fat (unless you fry them, bind them with eggs or top them with half a pound of cheese), veggie burgers can be made with chopped, cooked vegetables, cooked grains (rice, barley) and corn, tofu and other soy products and potatoes. Make your own or select from the many frozen, ready-to-use products available.

Burger research: Are all veggie burgers alike? There are so many on the market right now, you’ll probably want to do taste and cooking tests to decide which veggie burger best fits your needs.

Veggie burgers are generally lower in calories and fat than hamburgers. Extra lean ground beef gets more than half its calories from fat; most veggie burgers have less than 20% of calories from fat. Meat has no fiber; most veggie burgers have at least 3 or 4 grams of dietary fiber per serving. While veggie burgers have little or no cholesterol, a 3.5-ounce hamburger made with extra lean ground beef has 90 milligrams of cholesterol.

Veggie burgers, especially those made with soy, contain generous amounts of protein and iron. Vitamin B-12 is added to some veggie burgers. The only negatives for veggie burgers are that most are higher in sodium than ground beef and may require additional fat while cooking to prevent sticking.

Some veggie burgers are made with soy protein or mushrooms and these burgers look more like “real” hamburgers. They often have a chewy texture, a brown color and a grilled flavor. Some veggie burgers are based on combinations of beans, grains, or vegetables. These tend to look more homemade and may crumble easily. Some contain eggs, egg whites or cheese, so read the label for additional fat content.