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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.
Results: 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

Introduction Methods

M
cDonald’s states that the company has sold Nutrient composition of the beef hamburger and the McVeg-
⬎100 billion hamburgers, and are continuing gie burger patties were obtained from McDonald’s website17;
to sell “more than 75 hamburgers per second, recent sales and price data were obtained from McDonald’s
of every minute, of every hour, of every day of the year.”1 customer service and electronic sources.
The potentially considerable health impacts of this quan- McDonald’s does not publish sales and profits of individual
tity of beef were considered, at a time when soy-based items.18 Thus, it is not possible to estimate how many of
McVeggie burgers (and other veggie burgers) have mul- McDonald’s first 100 billion beef burgers sold were 1.6-oz
tiple national and international outlets,2– 8 when the hamburgers, 3.2-oz Big Macs (introduced in 1968),19 4.0-oz
Quarter Pounders (introduced in 1973),19 or other sand-
American Cancer Society9 and World Health Organiza-
wiches. This paper conservatively (given progressively larger
tion10 (among other health promotion organizations)
hamburger sizes)20 projected that the next 100 billion ham-
encourage limiting the amount of grilled/processed meat
burger patties sold by McDonald’s would be a 2.4-oz simple
consumed, and when consumer concerns persist regard-
average of the 3.2-ounce Big Mac and the 1.6-ounce ham-
ing “mad cow disease.”11,12 This paper does not aim to burger patties. (All burger weights reported herein are un-
document the health consequences of beef consumption cooked weights of U.S. burgers.) The Big Mac provides a
or of fast food, per se, but rather of one product whose conservative burger weight estimate because it is the smallest
effect on health may be negative,10,13 and which has been of the larger burgers that have been sold during McDonald’s
consumed ⬎100 billion times.14 Although McDonald’s is most sales-intensive years (since the 1980s).19 It was also
only one source of beef consumption, it is the leading selected because (according to a survey of a 10% sample of
worldwide hamburger retailer and food service retailer,15 Atlanta-area McDonald’s) the Big Mac now dominates burger
and holds the leading share (42%) of the U.S. fast-food sales, and it is reported to be the top seller worldwide.18
market.16 About 8% of Americans eat at a McDonald’s on Values for the mean 2.4-oz composite burger weight were
an average day, and 96% of Americans eat a meal there at conservatively computed by multiplying values for the
least yearly.16 The hypothesis of this manuscript is that smaller, less calorically dense (1.6-oz) hamburger by 1.5, and
there may be fewer health disadvantages if McDonald’s then multiplying by 100 billion (Table 1).
next 100 billion cow-derived burgers would instead be 100
billion plant-based burgers. Results
From the Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia If the next 100 billion beef patties were instead 100
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Erica Frank, MD, billion McVeggie patties, McDonald’s customers would
MPH, Department of Family & Preventive Medicine, Emory Univer-
sity School of Medicine, 69 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, Atlanta GA 30303- consume an equivalent number of calories, but also
3219. E-mail: efrank@emory.edu. hundreds of millions more pounds of fiber and pro-

Am J Prev Med 2005;28(4) 0749-3797/05/$–see front matter 379
© 2005 American Journal of Preventive Medicine • Published by Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2005.01.009
Table 1. Comparison of McDonald’s beef and McVeggie patties
100,000,000,000 100,000,000,000 Difference between
McDonald’s average McDonald’s beef and McVeggie
2.4-ounce beef patties McVeggie patties patties
Total fat (in billions of pounds)a 2.32 1.10 1.22
Saturated fat (in millions of pounds)a 992.25 441.00 551.25
Fiber (in billions of pounds)a 0 1.10 ⫺1.10
Protein (in billions of pounds)a 2.65 3.31 ⫺0.66
Calories (in trillions) 15.00 15.00 0
a
1 lb⫽454g.

tein, hundreds of millions fewer pounds of saturated lifetime, and for a population that cumulatively will
fat, and ⬎1 billion fewer pounds of total fat (Table 1). consume hundreds of billions of burgers.
It is also useful to compare these burger options on There is evidence that plant foods such as the McVeg-
individual patty and sandwich scales. When comparing gie burger may be less harmful to the health of consumers
the 1.6-oz McDonald’s beef patty (100 calories, 7 g fat, than beef burgers. Soy protein, the primary constituent of
3 g saturated fat, 0 g fiber, and 8 g protein) to the the McVeggie burger, can reduce cardiovascular disease
3.2-ounce McVeggie patty (150 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g risk (e.g., by lowering the total to high-density lipid
saturated fat, 5 g fiber, and 15 g protein), the McVeggie cholesterol ratio).39 – 41 The U.S. Food and Drug Admin-
burger patty has 50% more calories but also one third istration has therefore approved soy protein claims for
the saturated fat and twice as much protein.17 When lowering Americans’ cholesterol.42 Furthermore, the
comparing the 3.2-oz Big Mac patties (190 calories, 14 g American Dietetic Association,43 the American Heart
fat, 6 g saturated fat, 0 g fiber, and 16 g protein)17 to Association,44 and the American Cancer Society45 have
the McVeggie patty, the McVeggie patty has 20% fewer endorsed plant-based diets to help prevent disease and
calories, one third the fat, one sixth the saturated fat, satisfy nutrition requirements.
and nearly the same amount of protein. Additionally, The McVeggie patty and other veggie burgers represent
the beef patties have no fiber. 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
Conclusions These results may encourage policymakers to recom-
What might be the health consequences of the next 100 mend choosing plant-based patties as a less-unhealthy
billion beef burgers that McDonald’s and others may substitute for fast-food beef patties.
sell? Such calorically dense, fiber-poor, and highly
accessible fast foods have been linked to the obesity We wish to acknowledge McDonald’s domestic and interna-
epidemic in the United States.21 Hamburger/cheese- tional customer service representatives for sales data, as well
as Jennifer Carrera for her statistical contributions.
burger consumption has increased as a percent of total
No financial conflict of interest was reported by the authors
calories over the last 20 years,22 and contributes sub- of this paper.
stantially 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 What This Study Adds . . .
in 119 countries.29 Red meat consumption has been
linked to colon cancer,10,30,31 diabetes,32 and over- Eating large quantities of meat has substantial
weight/higher body mass indices.33,34 Obesity has been negative effects on health, and McDonald’s has
linked to a host of health problems including arthri- sold more than 100 billion hamburgers.
tis,25 cancer,35 cardiovascular disease,36 diabetes,25,32 Compared with McDonald’s plant-based burg-
high cholesterol,25 and hypertension.25 Further, subse- ers, these cow burgers provided approximately
quent burgers are likely to be bigger than the first 550 million additional pounds of saturated fat, 1.2
100 billion burgers (even in a post-“supersized” era for billion total pounds of fat, 1 billion fewer pounds
McDonald’s),37 as portion sizes at restaurants, espe- of fiber, 660 million fewer pounds of protein, and
cially fast-food restaurants (including McDonald’s),38 no caloric difference.
increased in the last decades of the 20th century.20 The These data suggest that McDonald’s McVeggie
saturated-fat–rich and fiber-poor beef burger is a nutri- burger is a less-harmful fast-food choice than their
tionally suboptimal choice, both for those individuals beef burger.
who might consume hundreds of such burgers over a

380 American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 28, Number 4
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