26-Ingredient School Lunch Burger: What's Inside It, And The Battle Against Processed Foods

The school burger has gotten more than its share of the spotlight lately as parents set off a media firestorm in a rally to remove the controversial, ammonia-treated "lean finely textured beef," nicknamed "pink slime," from schools.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture responded, electing to scale back on a planned purchase of 7 million pounds of ground beef mixed with the processed beef filler. Schools now have the option to purchase either 95 percent lean beef patties made with the mixed product or fattier bulk ground beef without the controversial mix. But even as districts are rushing to assure parents that their school patties don't include the so-called "pink slime," heavily processed foods are still largely present in cafeterias, NPR reports.

Serving up a burger patty seems simple enough: A handful of ground beef, seasoned with salt, pepper and some spices if preferred. But in America's schools, a burger is no basic food, laden with dozens of ingredients ranging from thiamine mononitrate to pyridoxine hydrochloride.

NPR's Morning Edition set out to uncover what's behind these complicated patties, and breaks it down in the video above. Frozen burger patties from California's Don Lee Farms serve schoolchildren in Fairfax County, Va., and are composed of 26 different ingredients, most of them unpronounceable for the average consumer.

Parents are calling on Fairfax County schools to get rid of processed foods like jumbo turkey franks and grilled cheese sandwiches made with a "cheese product," served in plastic bags -- in favor of scratch-made meals.

But that's not as easy as it sounds. Penny McConnell, who directs the school food service in Fairfax County, tells NPR that phasing out processed foods requires reversing a 30-year-long practice of easy, fast and efficient food preparation that came with the introduction of frozen dinners. Schools also say they don't have the equipment, space or labor force to make cooking from scratch a reality.

McConnell says "there's a lot of misinformation," and that many of the additives are vitamins, nutrients and flavorings. Still, she's working with processors to reduce additives and switch to a more natural frozen patty.

Even so, labelings for the Don Lee Farms patties reveal areas where the processed product is nutritionally inferior. A 2.25 oz prepared Don Lee Farms patty has 139 calories with 9.7 grams of fat and 11.9 grams of protein. By contrast, a same sized pan-broiled natural beef patty made of 15-percent fat ground beef contains 148 calories with 8.9 grams of fat and 15.7 grams of protein, according to the USDA.

The prepared patties, which has less overall protein, also contain soy flour for added protein -- meaning that the total protein just from beef could be even less than what's on the label. Soy protein is often added to products that require additives to make insoluble proteins complete and usable by the body -- a possible indicator of the presence of lean finely textured beef, or "pink slime." Those with soy allergies are also less able to consume the prepared product.

Outcry over "pink slime" has led manufacturer Beef Products Inc. to suspend operations at three of its four plants across the country. Concerns over negative effects on industry and employment, however, led three governors to publicly defend the product last week.

Still, removing processed items from schools is only one step in a national culture centered around highly processed foods.

"If we want to be healthy and want our kids to be healthy, we've got to find our kitchens again," Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, told NPR.

News of the USDA's original plan to bring 7 million pounds of "pink slime" to school cafeterias nationwide came just weeks after the government announced new guidelines to ensure students are given healthier options for school meals. The new standards call for more whole grains and produce as well as less sodium and fat in school meals. While the measures mark a step forward from previous years, they still compromise amid push-back from Congress to keep pizza and french fries on the menu -- counting both the tomato paste on pizza and the potatoes that make fries as vegetables.

Still, some schools -- like several in California -- have taken the matter into their own hands, and have found ways to profit from those efforts. Umpteen school districts have taken part in a decade-long initiative, supported by a philanthropic organization, that provides schools with equipments and chefs who teach cafeteria workers to cook from scratch and produce fresh meals.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more than a third of high school students were eating vegetables less than once a day -- "considerably below" recommended levels of intake for a healthy lifestyle that supports weight management and could reduce risks for chronic diseases and some cancers.