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Cooking Up Burger Alchemy In an Argentine Laboratory

A team at the Center for Research and Development of Food Cryotechnology has spent the past two years developing a low-fat, low-sodium hamburger that tastes a lot less healthful than it is. From left are researchers Natalia Ranalli, Silvina Andrés, Carolina Pennisi Forell, Alicia Califano and Noemi Zaritzky.
A team at the Center for Research and Development of Food Cryotechnology has spent the past two years developing a low-fat, low-sodium hamburger that tastes a lot less healthful than it is. From left are researchers Natalia Ranalli, Silvina Andrés, Carolina Pennisi Forell, Alicia Califano and Noemi Zaritzky. (Courtesy of the Center for Research and Development in Food Cryotechnology)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

LA PLATA, Argentina -- The quest for the perfect hamburger, as any ambitious barbecuer knows, is an exact science. And science is all about trial and error.

"How many hamburgers have we made?" says Noemi Zaritzky, head of Argentina's Center for Research and Development in Food Cryotechnology. "In total, you mean?"

She's stumped, as are two lab-coated co-workers who have coordinated research to develop a healthful hamburger that actually tastes better than a hiking boot. They sigh and scan the high corners of the room, vainly trying to recall how many prototypes they've consigned to the biohazard bin in the past two years.

They explain the basics: 40 hamburgers for each formulation. Hundreds of formulations to test microbiological reactions, oxidation, texture, taste . . .

"A lot of burgers," summarizes Silvina Andrés, a biochemist who helped lead the project.

The result is a lean beef burger that is low-fat, low-sodium and juicy, without saturated fat, and that tastes -- according to limited consumer tests -- as though it probably shouldn't be good for you.

Essentially, what the scientists have done is take the beef fat out of the meat and replace it with a combination of substitutes less likely to clog arteries. Those substitutes include high oleic sunflower oil and fats from seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which many studies suggest benefit cardiovascular health. They also added phytosterols to the mix -- a byproduct of soybeans that can lower the body's cholesterol absorption.

Because no wheat products are used as filler, the scientists said, the hamburger is also safe for people who can't ingest glutens.

"The taste is very similar to a regular hamburger because the oils and fats we've added -- even the seafood oils -- are neutral in taste and smell," said Alicia Califano, another chemist who developed the burger recipe. "But if you tried to make a hamburger this lean at home, it would be really hard and dry."

The hamburger, of course, is an icon of American cuisine, so Argentina might not seem like a logical laboratory for advanced hamburger studies. But when the scientists began working on their recipes, they were convinced that it was a worthy experiment for a few important reasons:

· The average Argentine in 2006 consumed more than 140 pounds of beef, according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. None of the other nationalities studied consumed even half that amount, with the exception of Americans, who consumed an average of 97 pounds.


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