How to Build a Better Burger and Lower Your Foodprint
Every meal we eat has a foodprint — an impact on animals, people and the environment. It’s the result of everything it takes to get that food from the farm to your plate. If you look at your burger, for example, the bun, patty and toppings each went through a process. Where did that beef come from? How was the wheat grown for the bun? Who picked those tomatoes? How much water did it take to grow the lettuce?
With summer grilling season heating up, it’s time to start thinking about how to build a burger with a smaller foodprint. Want a burger that is not only delicious, but is also made with ingredients that are grown with higher standards and have a much smaller impact on the people growing them, the environment and also animals? Lucky for you, we’ve created a guide for just how you can do it, all summer long.
Not All Beef Patties are Created Equal
Buy Pasture-raised or Certified Grassfed Beef
When you grab a pound of ground beef at the grocery store, what are you looking for? The price, or fat-content, or perhaps the cut? Some packages have additional labels that tell you a bit more about how that beef was produced, which can be key for understanding how to reduce your foodprint. A lot of the meat you’ll find in your supermarket is industrially produced (aka the classic styrofoam packs). This meat is made in a way that’s inhumane for the animals, pollutes waterways and soil, and is a major contributor to global greenhouse emissions. But there are livestock farmers raising animals sustainably, managing their land to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases, treating animals humanely and providing a better and safer working environment.
Most markets should have an organic option at the very least. Some might even offer something certified grassfed. If you’re lucky, you’ even have access to meat at a local farmers’ market or specialty butcher shop. Grassfed/pasture-raised are the ideal, but unless it’s certified as such, you can’t know if the claim is true or not.
Or Replace the Beef
Another option is to skip the meat in your patty altogether. A recent UN climate report suggests Americans reduce beef consumption by a whopping 90 percent, and giving it up at the backyard BBQ is a great way to start. The good news is that there are hundreds of veggie burger options out there, from alternative meat options like Impossible Burger to a slew of recipes featuring everything from cauliflower and quinoa to fiber-packed juice pulp. Start with our guide to the best veggie burger recipes and by the end of summer you’ll be creating your own recipes. Not ready to give up all the beef? Try a blended burger — subbing in chopped mushroom or other vegetables for half of the meat — to add extra flavor to your burger and reduce its impact.
How About That Bun?
Industrially Grown Wheat
Most hamburger buns are made with processed white flour, from wheat. Conventionally produced wheat is grown in what’s called a monoculture — where one variety of plant is grown in great quantities in the same place, year after year — which depletes nutrients from the soil and requires heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Instead of picking up that pack of standard buns, we recommend buying USDA certified organic bread products; this guarantees they were made with few or no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Heritage Grains and Biodiversity
Take it a step further and buy (or make your own) buns made with something other than regular wheat flour. Look for local or smaller-scale producers that are using lesser-known heritage or “ancient” grains like spelt, rye or einkorn to make their buns. When you choose products made with diverse ingredients, rather than a single monocultured one, you are supporting biodiversity and, usually, supporting a grain production system that is smaller scale and relies less on chemical input like fertilizers or pesticides.
What’s on Top of that Burger
Familiar with that watery, floppy and vaguely pink tomato sliver found atop many a hamburger? We’re so accustomed to having tomatoes on our burgers, we sometimes don’t even stop to ask ourselves if they taste good. Tomatoes, a seasonal fruit at heart, are grown on an industrial scale, year-round in Florida, California and Mexico. In order to get them growing, they are farmed with a tremendous amount of fertilizer and chemical pesticides, earning them a top spot on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” a list of foods with the highest risk of pesticide exposure. They’re bred for durability and appearance, not for taste. In addition, the conventional tomato industry has a documented history of deplorable conditions (and pay) for tomato pickers. This means that your burger topping is generally bad for you, bad for workers and bad for the environment.
How to Find Better Tomatoes
Instead of picking that perfectly round, tasteless orb in December, buy tomatoes at the farmers’ market, when they’re in season. Or you can look for hothouse USDA certified organic tomatoes at your grocery store. This means they were grown indoors without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Lettuce Rethink Things
Almost all of the lettuce eaten in this country is grown in California or Yuma, Arizona, year-round and shipped around the country. Like its burger-topping-cousin, the tomato, it also has a spot on the Environmental Working Group’s list of produce that is grown with an awful lot of pesticides, coming in last year at #15. We recommend looking for USDA Certified Organic Lettuce, or using it on your burgers only when leafy greens are in season at your local farmers’ market. Ideas for lettuce substitutes below.
Skip the Lettuce and Tomatoes: Get Creative About Burger Toppings
Don’t forget: your burger does not require a tomato or lettuce. Get creative! Ketchup and other bottled sauces are an obvious option (especially those that are organic, made without High Fructose Corn Syrup and/or homemade), but to make your burger more foodprint-friendly, try turning recovered refrigerator odds and ends into your burger topping. Some ideas to get your creative, cooking-with-less-waste mind on the right track: sautee, caramelize or pickle that leftover half an onion; rescue radish or turnip greens to create a pesto spread; salvage cucumber leftovers in a quick pickle, or transform wilting fruit into a smoky chipotle jam.
Eating a Better Burger When Dining Out
What about when you’re at a restaurant? How can you build a better burger there? We recommend looking for restaurants that offer certified grassfed meat and/or can tell you where they get the meat and how its raised. If you don’t feel good about how the meat was raised, you can always go for the veggie burger.
For more suggestions about questions to ask and what to look for when dining out, visit our Dining Out Sustainably Page.