Is ‘Mediterranean Burger’ an Oxymoron?

July 28, 2010 in Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Mediterranean, Nutrition, Whole Grains by Joyce Bunderson

It’s so pleasing to see so many websites and journals referring to the Mediterranean diet or Mediterranean-style of eating, as we call it. The word is getting out, for that I’m joyful. But I’ve developed a new fear; my fear is that while the public has the feeling that the Mediterranean diet must be a good thing, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many people may not really know what the precepts of the style are. (See Mediterranean Style of Eating Basics for a review of the research and principles that define the Mediterranean Style of Eating)

A few days ago I was just ‘flipping through’ some websites .…. these are not journals …… I guess in today’s language I should say ‘surfing the net,’ and I stumbled upon a very credible website that often shares recipes designed to be healthy. This particular recipe was called Mediterranean Burgers; it piqued my interest. I clicked on the recipe link, and I must admit, what I read knocked my socks off. OK, I was wearing sandals, but I was absolutely stunned that this recipe would be thought to embody Mediterranean-style principles.

Without writing the exact recipe, I will share a few points of interest to me.

  • First, I read that it had a pound of ground beef; so I immediately read on and discovered that the recipe is designed to make four burgers. Is a quarter-pounder considered to be consistent with the Mediterranean-style principle of ‘eating beef’ (or any red meat) sparingly?
  • Then I noticed that it included 8 fresh spinach leaves; (yum, count them, all 8 leaves). But after learning that the recipe was designed to make four servings, I was stunned to realize that each individual would receive two spinach leaves with their serving. The new principle seems to be to not overdo the verdure. Keep it small, as a garnish.  Yet Dr. Ancel Keyes made greens central in his seminal work on the Mediterranean-style of eating. He called dark greens, and generous helpings of them, “verdure.” These were a particularly defining attribute of the meals of these “healthiest people in the world” at that time.
  • The modern Mediterranean Burger had a few other vegetables; namely, ¼ oz. red peppers; ¼ tablespoon oregano leaves, and a slice of red onion – all per person. This seems consistent with the principle of vegetables as garnish and meat as the centerpiece, a 180 degree flip from the original ratio of meat to vegetables in the Mediterranean-style of eating. You can co-opt the word ‘Mediterranean” and apply it to something diametrically opposed to its original meaning, but you can’t then claim the health benefits, quite the contrary!
  • Lastly, the recipe suggested that it be served on white bread bun/roll.

So my questions are:

  • Does a slice of onion, two spinach leaves, and a speck of flavorful vegetables, turn a quarter-pound of beef into a Mediterranean menu item?
  • Did we lose the memo about the benefits of whole grains?

I started to think about this particular recipe and decided that I should be a little fair and Google ‘Mediterranean Burgers’ to see if there was any reason for me to have ‘lost my socks.’ I only reviewed the items on first search page, but of those on the first page, I will share a few observations:

  • White bread buns, cheese topped Asiago white bread and even fat-laden biscuits were common end pieces for the meat. Although the Mediterranean countries are flush with white bread today, it was not that way when Keyes discovered their 90% lower cardiovascular disease. Insist on whole wheat in your meals.
  • Some of the recipes on that first page were even worse. Several included 1½ pounds of red meat; divided into 4 servings.  That makes 6-ounce burgers; which is over a third of a pound for each person.
  • Many of the recipes add saturated fat containing cheese to their large red meat patties; one of the recipes included 1½ ounces of cheese per serving to go with the 6-ounce burger. If you’re interested in reviewing a commentary on cheese read Should We Put the Brakes on Eating Cheese? A central principle of the Mediterranean diet was that olive oil, from a plant, not animal fat of any kind, was the main type of fat consumed. See my recent blog post on extra-virgin olive oil.
  • Two recipes for Mediterranean Burgers included ½ cup of mayonnaise, to be divided by the four servings; 180 calories per serving; 20 grams of fat (3 of them saturated); 180 grams of sodium. If you want to keep your fat down a bit, consider using non-fat Greek yogurt or other lower fat condiments instead.

On that first page of Mediterranean Burgers there were two that were essentially veggie burgers, they really were plant products made to appear like American burgers and would certainly qualify as fitting the principles of the Mediterranean-style much better than the beef patties; although such a thing as a veggie burger was unknown during the times of Keyes’ initial research. These two examples are evidence that not everyone has lost the concept of what the Mediterranean diet really means.

  • The first principle-consistent offering was a veggie-based burger designed by Eating Well. It was served on a whole-wheat roll.
  • The second was a veggie-based ‘burger’ presented on a local ABC station. It was served in a lettuce wrap.

Lastly, what if you’re in a hurry? Could commercially pre-made veggie burgers be used in a Mediterranean-style meal? The following are a few hints, gained by reviewing two brands of veggie burgers:

  • Commit to being a label-reader.
  • I discovered that Boca Burger was 100 calories and Garden Burgers were 150 each. That’s enough to choose Boca Burgers to seek your 5-pound weight loss goal (50 calories a day less for a year – equals 5 pounds a year).
  • Boca Burger 520 mg of sodium and Garden Burgers 780 mg.
  • Boca Burgers 19 grams of protein and the Garden Burgers only had 9 grams.
  • The Garden Burgers have two types of cheese; which probably is what contributes to the higher calories and lower protein.

I’d have to say, “If you’re in a hurry, the Boca Burger product is a better choice. In the ‘hurry’ thinking mode, I’d suggest whole wheat Sandwich Thins. They’re only 100 calories for both top and bottom – a calorie bargain. Load up your ‘burger’ with real servings of cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and colorful peppers – not tiny amounts only suitable for garnish. Also, skip the cheese. Consider using herbed-Greek yogurt or hummus as your spread; then you can accurately publish your idea as a Mediterranean-style burger. Whether ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘Burger’ are oxymoronic together or not thus depends on how you make them. Be creative and think ‘whole grains and veggies’. Apply principles of flavor highlights and textures to enhance the yummyness factor.’ One thing we can say about the Mediterranean-style, people enjoyed eating together greatly, after a hard day’s work on the hilly slopes, and they expected and got serious yummyness in their meals. Grilled Fish Tacos with Peachy Salsa fit the criteria of serious yummyness.