The hamburger is on a health kick. At least three food companies have introduced hamburgers that are high in good fat — you know, the unsaturated kind. Is it just a matter of time before more doctors are urging their patients to eat more of one of America’s greatest comfort foods?

Jim Drouillard, an animal science researcher and industry professor at Kansas State Univ. in Manhattan, Kan., doesn’t know if it will ever come to that. But Drouillard, who has developed a technique that enriches ground beef with omega-3 fatty acids through feeding cattle, says Americans can now eat healthier hamburgers without making a big lifestyle change, like switching to tuna for lunch every day.

“History would say we’re not very successful in doing something like that,” Drouillard says. “This product does give people a choice — and it’s a much easier choice.”

The product that Drouillard is talking about is GreatO Premium Ground Beef, the first US Dept. of Agriculture-labeled ground beef product that’s naturally abundant in omega-3 fatty acids and still retains the taste of regular ground beef. The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are widely known — they can boost heart health and lower triglycerides and even may help with rheumatoid arthritis and depression, according to reports and research.

Drouillard is betting that more Americans would rather eat a hamburger containing omega-3 than a tuna sandwich containing it. Drouillard says a quarter-pound hamburger made of the enriched ground beef contains 200 milligrams of omega-3.

GreatO Premium Ground Beef recently debuted at TOPS Friendly Markets, a Williamsville, NY-based grocery retailer chain of about 130 stores. The ground beef is available chain-wide in 1-lb. packages. It will be available nationwide later this year.

NBO3 Technologies LLC, a Manhattan, Kan.-based group specializing in protein supply-chain systems, worked with the K-State researchers for more than 10 years to create and bring GreatO to market.

Competition is good

But NB03 Technologies and TOPS Friendly Markets aren’t the only companies collaborating on omega-3 enriched products. Ironically, another Kansas-based company — Creekstone Farms Premium Beef — will roll out another brand of omega-3 enriched beef products, including ground beef, in the second quarter.

Creekstone Farms has been testing the product, Simply O Choice Beef, with a foodservice distributor in Kansas City. While it’s being tested as a premade patty in foodservice, the company plans to develop it for retail in the future as well.

“We’ve had really good results with the testing,” says Jim Rogers, vice president of marketing for Arkansas City, Kan.-based Creekstone Farms.

The product Creekstone is producing isn’t the same product as K-State has developed. Creekstone Farms is working with Progressive Food Innovations (PFI) to develop the product. PFI has researched the levels of omega-3 required to enhance beef, including the amount of the extruded flaxseed that needs to be fed to cattle and for how many days to maximize the omega-3 benefit, Rogers says.

“It’s certainly innovative to the beef industry,” Rogers says. “The key thing with this is that [omega-3] doesn’t alter the flavor or the taste profile.”

On the topic of flavor, Evan Wexler, chief operating officer of New York-based Steakhouse Elite, says his flavorful Kobe-crafted burgers, which he calls “a fusion between Wagyu beef and traditional American beef,” are a hit with retailers up and down the East Coast, including Publix and Acme.

“There’s also a health benefit to our product,” Wexler explains, noting that Kobe beef features a high percentage of oleaginous unsaturated fat, which is a healthy fat. “Even though we’re an 80/20 blend, the fat content in our burger is a healthier fat than what you will find in regular beef.”

In the making

Drouillard, a feedlot cattle nutritionist, says K-State’s interest in the omega-3 concept goes back to the late 1990s. But then researchers were more interested in omega-3’s impact on the animal’s health.

Drouillard explains that young cattle transported from distant regions were subject to stress and often succumbed to shipping fever or respiratory disease. Researchers learned that flaxseed enriched with omega-3 was effective in treating the symptoms. Around the same time, the researchers discovered that omega-3 helped manage high glucose concentrations in cattle. But when the researchers studied the meat, they made a startling discovery.

“We discovered it had a 12-fold higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids,” Drouillard says. “The old adage, ‘You are what you eat,’ seems to apply to cattle, too.”

K-State researchers began studying omega-3’s impact on meat composition around 2000. They discovered initially that omega-3 fatty acid caused oxidation and led to some off-flavors in the beef.

“We knew if we couldn’t get past that, then we wouldn’t have a product,” Drouillard says.

The researchers decided to add vitamin E to the cattle’s diet along with flaxseed because it was discovered that the combination in the diet had a tremendous impact on the final product, leading it to overcome oxidation, color deterioration and flavor problems.

K-State turned over commercialization of the product to beef innovator Bernie Hansen, who began the company Flint Hills Food and later sold it to Hormel Foods Corp.

“We knew there was an opportunity with this omega-3 enriched beef, and we thought Bernie was the person to take it forward,” Drouillard says.

Hansen and his son, Todd, have been working for more than a decade on revolutionizing how to make products healthier for consumers, as well as making the animals healthier.

“We are offering beef with naturally abundant omega-3 fatty acids by feeding animals an omega-3 rich diet; we are truly making every bite count for the animals and for humans, alike,” says Todd Hansen, CEO of NBO3 Technologies. “The relationship between NBO3 and K-State is a model example of academic and commercial collaboration to develop and take to market beneficial improvements for both industry and consumers.”

Drouillard estimates it costs $30 to $40 more a head to feed cattle the omega-3 fatty acid diet, which causes the final product to cost more.

“The product will be priced a little higher than commodity beef, but it will be substantially lower priced than organic beef,” Drouillard adds.

Progressive Food Innovations has been working on the omega-3 concept for several years. Creekstone Farms teamed with the company a little more than a year ago and went into a limited production last September.

Rogers, who calls Creekstone Farms a high-end, quality-driven beef producer, says the company’s decision-makers became interested in the concept when they realized the fatty acid wouldn’t change the beef’s taste, tenderness or texture.

“We would love to have it all over the country,” Rogers says. “We just have to find the right retail partners to make that happen. That’s what we’re working on right now.”

Creekstone Farms will sell the line in fresh and frozen forms. Rogers expects the ground beef will cost 10 percent to 15 percent per lb. more than regular ground beef.

“Do I think this is going to revolutionize the beef industry in the US? No,” Rogers says. “There’s an added expense because it’s a premium product. There will be a consumer base out there that won’t purchase this product because of the price.”

But Rogers says there’s a large enough customer base that’s willing to pay a premium price for the product that has a health benefit, not just a perceived health benefit.

However, there’s a chance the beef’s price could decrease if the price of feed comes down — if researchers can find a way for cattle to get more omega-3 in less feed. The price could also drop if the entire production chain becomes more efficient.

“We do anticipate the cost of the product to decline somewhat, but it will always have a premium price when compared to traditionally fed beef,” Rogers says.

TOPS Markets says recent research shows many consumers are interested in buying healthy food products. The US currently doesn’t have a recommended daily intake of omega-3, though many doctors and nutritionists recommend between 1,200 to 1,600 milligrams daily, depending on a person’s age and health.

It took Steakhouse Elite’s Wexler some time to find the right price point for his product. Wexler first tried 100-percent Kobe beef burgers, but it proved too expensive for most people. Kobe beef comes from Wagyu cattle, a breed that if fed correctly will yield beef with intense marbling.

But a few years ago, hybrid burgers — a blend of brisket and short-rib meat, for instance — became popular in New York. Wexler got to thinking: What if he blended Kobe beef with a beef cut from a traditional animal and marketed it as his product? That’s what the product has become, but Wexler prefers to call it “crafted” rather than “blended.”

“The word ‘crafted’ symbolizes something that’s made with a little more tender, loving care,” Wexler says.

The “crafted” burger also became more affordable, Wexler adds.

“Most people feel like they can’t afford Kobe beef,” he adds. “But we have more than enough in our product to give you the [Kobe beef] experience at an affordable price.”

Sales have picked up. Wexler says it hasn’t lost a customer since it started the brand three years ago.

“We were struggling to sell 2,000 lbs. of it, now we’re selling a couple hundred thousand lbs. a week,” he says.

The brand’s black-and-gold label symbolizes “a level above,” Wexler says. The burgers are pre-formed at 6 oz. and always sold fresh.

“The burgers look like they are hand-patties; they don’t look like hockey pucks,” Wexler says.