Potential Effects of the Next 100 Billion Hamburgers Sold by McDonald’s

Elsa H. Spencer, PhD, Erica Frank, MD, MPH, Nichole F. McIntosh, MD, MPH Background: McDonald’s has sold 100 billion beef-based hamburgers worldwide with a potentially considerable health impact. This paper explores whether there would be any advantages if the next 100 billion burgers were instead plant-based burgers. Methods: Nutrient composition of the beef hamburger patty and the McVeggie burger patty were obtained from the McDonald’s website; sales data were obtained from the McDonald’s customer service. Consuming 100 billion McDonald’s beef burgers versus the same company’s McVeggie burgers would provide, approximately, on average, an additional 550 million pounds of saturated fat and 1.2 billion total pounds of fat, as well as 1 billion fewer pounds of fiber, 660 million fewer pounds of protein, and no difference in calories.


Conclusions: These data suggest that the McDonald’s new McVeggie burger represents a less harmful fast-food choice than the beef burger.
(Am J Prev Med 2005;28(4):379 –381) © 2005 American Journal of Preventive Medicine

cDonald’s states that the company has sold 100 billion hamburgers, and are continuing to sell “more than 75 hamburgers per second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day of the year.”1 The potentially considerable health impacts of this quantity of beef were considered, at a time when soy-based McVeggie burgers (and other veggie burgers) have multiple national and international outlets,2– 8 when the American Cancer Society9 and World Health Organization10 (among other health promotion organizations) encourage limiting the amount of grilled/processed meat consumed, and when consumer concerns persist regarding “mad cow disease.”11,12 This paper does not aim to document the health consequences of beef consumption or of fast food, per se, but rather of one product whose effect on health may be negative,10,13 and which has been consumed 100 billion times.14 Although McDonald’s is only one source of beef consumption, it is the leading worldwide hamburger retailer and food service retailer,15 and holds the leading share (42%) of the U.S. fast-food market.16 About 8% of Americans eat at a McDonald’s on an average day, and 96% of Americans eat a meal there at least yearly.16 The hypothesis of this manuscript is that there may be fewer health disadvantages if McDonald’s next 100 billion cow-derived burgers would instead be 100 billion plant-based burgers.
From the Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Erica Frank, MD, MPH, Department of Family & Preventive Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, 69 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, Atlanta GA 303033219. E-mail: efrank@emory.edu.

Nutrient composition of the beef hamburger and the McVeggie burger patties were obtained from McDonald’s website17; recent sales and price data were obtained from McDonald’s customer service and electronic sources. McDonald’s does not publish sales and profits of individual items.18 Thus, it is not possible to estimate how many of McDonald’s first 100 billion beef burgers sold were 1.6-oz hamburgers, 3.2-oz Big Macs (introduced in 1968),19 4.0-oz Quarter Pounders (introduced in 1973),19 or other sandwiches. This paper conservatively (given progressively larger hamburger sizes)20 projected that the next 100 billion hamburger patties sold by McDonald’s would be a 2.4-oz simple average of the 3.2-ounce Big Mac and the 1.6-ounce hamburger patties. (All burger weights reported herein are uncooked weights of U.S. burgers.) The Big Mac provides a conservative burger weight estimate because it is the smallest of the larger burgers that have been sold during McDonald’s most sales-intensive years (since the 1980s).19 It was also selected because (according to a survey of a 10% sample of Atlanta-area McDonald’s) the Big Mac now dominates burger sales, and it is reported to be the top seller worldwide.18 Values for the mean 2.4-oz composite burger weight were conservatively computed by multiplying values for the smaller, less calorically dense (1.6-oz) hamburger by 1.5, and then multiplying by 100 billion (Table 1).


If the next 100 billion beef patties were instead 100 billion McVeggie patties, McDonald’s customers would consume an equivalent number of calories, but also hundreds of millions more pounds of fiber and pro379

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0749-3797/05/$–see front matter doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2005.01.009

Table 1. Comparison of McDonald’s beef and McVeggie patties 100,000,000,000 McDonald’s average 2.4-ounce beef patties Total fat (in billions of pounds)a Saturated fat (in millions of pounds)a Fiber (in billions of pounds)a Protein (in billions of pounds)a Calories (in trillions)

100,000,000,000 McDonald’s McVeggie patties 1.10 441.00 1.10 3.31 15.00

Difference between beef and McVeggie patties 1.22 551.25 1.10 0.66 0

2.32 992.25 0 2.65 15.00

1 lb 454g.

tein, hundreds of millions fewer pounds of saturated fat, and 1 billion fewer pounds of total fat (Table 1). It is also useful to compare these burger options on individual patty and sandwich scales. When comparing the 1.6-oz McDonald’s beef patty (100 calories, 7 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 g fiber, and 8 g protein) to the 3.2-ounce McVeggie patty (150 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 5 g fiber, and 15 g protein), the McVeggie burger patty has 50% more calories but also one third the saturated fat and twice as much protein.17 When comparing the 3.2-oz Big Mac patties (190 calories, 14 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 0 g fiber, and 16 g protein)17 to the McVeggie patty, the McVeggie patty has 20% fewer calories, one third the fat, one sixth the saturated fat, and nearly the same amount of protein. Additionally, the beef patties have no fiber.

What might be the health consequences of the next 100 billion beef burgers that McDonald’s and others may sell? Such calorically dense, fiber-poor, and highly accessible fast foods have been linked to the obesity epidemic in the United States.21 Hamburger/cheeseburger consumption has increased as a percent of total calories over the last 20 years,22 and contributes substantially in energy23 and fat23 to the U.S. epidemic24 –26 and global pandemic27,28 of obesity. McDonald’s is an especially important source of beef burgers because the company is an industry leader with 30,000 restaurants in 119 countries.29 Red meat consumption has been linked to colon cancer,10,30,31 diabetes,32 and overweight/higher body mass indices.33,34 Obesity has been linked to a host of health problems including arthritis,25 cancer,35 cardiovascular disease,36 diabetes,25,32 high cholesterol,25 and hypertension.25 Further, subsequent burgers are likely to be bigger than the first 100 billion burgers (even in a post-“supersized” era for McDonald’s),37 as portion sizes at restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants (including McDonald’s),38 increased in the last decades of the 20th century.20 The saturated-fat–rich and fiber-poor beef burger is a nutritionally suboptimal choice, both for those individuals who might consume hundreds of such burgers over a

lifetime, and for a population that cumulatively will consume hundreds of billions of burgers. There is evidence that plant foods such as the McVeggie burger may be less harmful to the health of consumers than beef burgers. Soy protein, the primary constituent of the McVeggie burger, can reduce cardiovascular disease risk (e.g., by lowering the total to high-density lipid cholesterol ratio).39 – 41 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has therefore approved soy protein claims for lowering Americans’ cholesterol.42 Furthermore, the American Dietetic Association,43 the American Heart Association,44 and the American Cancer Society45 have endorsed plant-based diets to help prevent disease and satisfy nutrition requirements. The McVeggie patty and other veggie burgers represent a less-troubling fast-food burger alternative, given the currently limited fast-food choices available to individuals concerned about their health (and the environment).46 These results may encourage policymakers to recommend choosing plant-based patties as a less-unhealthy substitute for fast-food beef patties.
We wish to acknowledge McDonald’s domestic and international customer service representatives for sales data, as well as Jennifer Carrera for her statistical contributions. No financial conflict of interest was reported by the authors of this paper.

What This Study Adds . . .
Eating large quantities of meat has substantial negative effects on health, and McDonald’s has sold more than 100 billion hamburgers. Compared with McDonald’s plant-based burgers, these cow burgers provided approximately 550 million additional pounds of saturated fat, 1.2 billion total pounds of fat, 1 billion fewer pounds of fiber, 660 million fewer pounds of protein, and no caloric difference. These data suggest that McDonald’s McVeggie burger is a less-harmful fast-food choice than their beef burger.

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