Packaged burgers and beef tartares not only contain meat, water and salt, but almost always also a number of other ingredients and food additives.
GIFT's market survey (Great Italian Food Trade) examines the labels of 39 products on shelves in September 2023. Brand and private label industry, obviously including discount.
Hamburgers and beef tartare, the comparison parameters
Features identified to evaluate the quality of the burgers and compare the products are:
- quantity of meat and other ingredients,
- energy value (kcal), saturated fat and salt per 100 g of product,
- origin of meat,
- transparency of information to the consumer,
- price per kg and quantity of product in the package.
How much meat in the packaged hamburger?
Not qualified in the comparison of two products by meat content:
– 'The hamburger that was missing' by 'La Famiglia Ambrosini', with 56,5% meat.
Clarification. The company wrote to us complaining about the inclusion of this product in the comparison, explaining that 'As can be seen from the name of the product, its peculiar characteristic is that it is a meat burger with vegetables (carrots and courgettes)'. And claiming to produce several other burgers with high percentages of meat (from 86 to 95%). In our market research, however, we take the consumer's point of view. In this case, we considered every product defined on the label as a 'burger'. The one selected is the only Ambrosini that we found on the shelf, while on the operator's website for the other products there is no way to find a list of ingredients or a nutritional table.
– 'Hamburger with veal' under the 'I Teneroni di Casa Modena' brand which contains just 41% meat, with the addition, among other things, of the problematic preservative E250 (sodium nitrite).
The silver and bronze medals they go to Esselunga, with the organic hamburger (99% meat) and some others where meat represents 97% of the ingredients, which include potato starch and flavorings and/or additives. The other brands follow, in a progressive decline in the quantity of meat which reaches 72% of Carrefour's hamburger with speck (and nitrites).
The only hamburger made with only meat (95%), water and salt – without other ingredients or additives – is the Giotto di La Granda, 100% Piedmontese. It is no coincidence that one of the icons of the Eataly butchery department, organized by La Granda itself, unfortunately not yet available anywhere else except online.
The other ingredients
The meat is partly replaced with 'filler' ingredients of lesser value or in any case equipped with technological functions:
– potatoes, present in the majority of the products examined in the form of starch, starch or flakes (in some cases with mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids of undefined origin, palm oil or animal fats),
– various types of fibers (legumes, bamboo, citrus fruits, chicory), vegetables and various sugars (sucrose, dextrose, fructose), beetroot powder.
Cheeses (Grana Padano DOP, Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, Pecorino Romano DOP) are added to some doughs, pork and derived products (bacon, speck, with nitrites) in others. Pay attention to allergens, not only milk but also egg in the case of Grana, and saturated fats in the case of cured meats.
The nutritional profiles deserve particular attention, since the values expressed in the tables refer to 100 g of product while the most popular hamburgers weigh 180 g, even 250 g in the maxi versions. We focus on four distinctive elements:
Calorie. The energy value (kcal) varies significantly - from 91 to 236 kcal/100 g - based on the type of meat, more or less fatty, and the ingredients added.
Saturated fats. In the 39 products examined, the percentage of saturated fat is very variable. They range from a minimum of 0,9% - in the Giotto burger from La Granda - up to a maximum of 9,2% in the 150g Carrefour organic burger. The latter thus provides 13,8g of saturated fat, equal to 69% of the average daily reference consumption for an adult. (1)
Salt. Excess salt in the daily diet is directly associated with the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, as well as increasing the risk of contracting numerous diseases, including diabetes and cancer. (2) In the sample examined, the most virtuous example is once again provided by Esselunga, with 0,35g of salt/100g in its 220g maxi burger of Piedmontese beef and Parmigiano Reggiano. In a few other cases the salt is less than 1 g/kg.
Protein. The protein content in turn varies significantly, from the paltry 10 of 'The burger that was missing' (with just 56,5% meat) to 22,1% of the Piedmontese maxi burger from Esselunga.
Food additives. The nitrites in 3 burgers and 5 tartares
Among the additives food added to burgers, two deserve particular attention:
E250, sodium nitrite. Consumption of this preservative, typically added to cured meats, is linked to a greater risk of colon cancer. A recent scientific study (Crowe et al., 2022) published in Science of Food (Nature partner) highlights how the consumption of meat processed with nitrites and nitrates is a trigger for colorectal cancer. (3)
The nitrites they are present in 3 burgers and 5 tartares:
– Hamburger with speck from Carrefour,
– Hamburger with Teneroni veal from Casa Modena,
– Hamburger with bacon. Flavors & Ideas Conad,
– Fiorfiore Coop adult beef tartare,
– Fiorani adult bovine tartare,
– Beef tartare. The hill of goodness. Eurospin,
– Chianina tartare from Salumificio Sandri
– Maremma meat tartare from Salumificio Sandri,
There are no risks in sight, vice versa, in the other additives detected in the various burgers and tartares examined: E325 – Sodium lactate, E262 – Sodium acetates, E301 – Sodium ascorbate, E300 – Ascorbic acid.
What breeds of meat?
Adult cattle. Age over 12 months. Without further clarification, this type of meat is found in 12 out of 39 burgers and tartares examined.
Calf. Young cattle, slaughtered before 8 months of age, appear only in the Casa Vercelli hamburger.
Scottona. Adult female cattle that have never given birth are the main ingredient in 8 products.
Mixtures. Some mix different meats. Veal and pork in Teneroni Casa Modena. Cattle, veal and pig in the Big Caesar of the Work of Art
Cattle breeds they are often boasted in elegant vacuum packs (skin packs) on black cardboard. Piedmontese, Chianina, Marchigiana and Romagnola, the last three harvested under the Vitellone Bianco dell'Appennino Centrale PGI specification. These are cattle, male and female, aged between 12 and 24 months, born and raised in the geographical area indicated by the specification, which goes from Ravenna to Caserta. (4) A single example of Angus, a breed originally from Scotland, bred all over the world.
Children of an unknown mother, the mystery of the origin
The indication of the origin of meat is not mandatory for burgers, as they are 'meat preparations'. Over half of the labels contain geographical references on a voluntary basis, in the name of transparency which however presents areas for improvement. Some examples:
– the wording 'Italian hamburger' with tricolor of the Big Caesar Hamburger of the work of art is not accompanied by a confirmation of the identity of the country of birth, breeding and slaughter,
– the label of the Angus burger, in referring to a breed originating from Scotland, but 'exported and raised all over the world', does not reveal from which corner of the world the meat used comes from,
– the 'Italian bovine' cited by LIDL in the label of its hamburger is partial, it does not specify the place of birth of the animals,
– Carrefour's organic hamburger is presented as 'from Italian farms', but the origin of the meat is not specified, on a qualified label with EU organic certification
– the tricolor on the label and the claim 'bovines from Italian farms' do not reveal the origin of the meat,
– the Conad hamburger made with a mix of white veal from the Central Apennines PGI (certainly 100% Italian) and 'adult Chianina' makes one suspect the use of imported meat too.
The LIDL calf escaped from the PGI
A surprising case concerns the purebred meat proposed by LIDL. Marche, Chianina and Piedmontese breed. No indication of origin, no clarification on the possible belonging to the Vitellone dell'Appennino Centrale PGI circuit.
GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade) tried in vain to contact LIDL Italia to ask for explanations. Unanswered emails, answering machine to the press office, customer support without the requested information.
The solution the enigma comes instead, in no uncertain terms, from Andrea Petrini, director of the Consorzio di Tutela Vitellone Bianco dell'Appennino Centrale PGI, who we asked about the label of LIDL's 'Marche meat':
'No authorization was requested (from LIDL, ed.). to use the protected name and/or logo on the label. (…) The only thing that the label tells us is that we are talking about a hamburger from the Marche region, but this does not guarantee us either the category of the animal (whether it is meat from a 16-month-old or 16-year-old bovine), nor the its origin (if born and/or raised in Italy or in any other part of the world), nor the characteristics of the meat (in terms of chemical-physical parameters)'.
The Piedmontese incognito
A similar case concerns the meat of the 'Piedmontese breed', which boasts a genealogical list where all the animals are registered, but not even a protected designation of origin. Both LIDL and Casa Vercelli mention it on the label of their burgers without however specifying its origin.
The hypothesis that in cases without indication of origin it is a Piedmontese breed raised abroad - as for the non-PGI Vitellone - does not convince Guido Garnero of Anaborapi, the association of breeders of these prized cattle. 'The numbers abroad are small. There is something in Germany, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland. But in Vercelli there is a very large slaughterhouse. That's where the Piedmont bulls go at the end of their careers'.
For those who want to think badlyHowever, there is no shortage of clues. Starting from the deafening silence of the two operators we interviewed. One, LIDL, German-owned. The other, Casa Vercelli, with the two lines '100% Italian veal' and 'The selection of Casa Vercelli' where the origin is not specified.
Last case unclear concerns the Salumificio Sandri which does not specify the origin of the cattle in its Maremma meat hamburger.
The doubt is soon resolved. 'The country of birth and breeding does not matter. It is sufficient for the animal to stay in Maremma for 4 months so that it can be defined as 'Maremma meat', explains the quality office of the sausage factory.
Shortage of organic and no antibiotics
Our market survey highlighted a worrying shortage of organic burgers. Only Esselunga, Carrefour and NaturaSì offer them.
'Antibiotic-free' starting from weaning of the animals is a guarantee offered only on some Coop products.
(1) Food Information Regulation (EU) No 1169/11, Annex XIII, Part B. Reference consumption of energy elements and certain nutritional elements other than vitamins and mineral salts (adults)
(2) Marta Strinati. WHO report cards on national policies to reduce salt consumption. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).
(3) Marta Strinati. Nitrites in processed meats and colorectal cancer risk, new evidence. 4.1.23 GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade)
(4) Disciplinary White Vitellone dell'Appennino PGI. Protection consortium https://www.vitellonebianco.it/download/disciplinari/
Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".