A whopper of a different sort?

Burger King unveils splashy new campaign built around lemongrass, and not much science, says expert

The yodelling young cowboy is pretty good, but don’t take it for gospel when Burger King’s newest pitchman warbles that “the scientists have proven that it works.”

The American burger chain recently launched (in a few U.S. cities) the Reduced Methane Emissions Beef Whopper. Burger King says it “teamed up” with “top-level” scientists from the University of California at Davis and a Mexican university to study different herbs and “found that by adding 100 grams of dried lemongrass leaves to the cows’ daily feed, we were able to see a reduction of up to 33 per cent on average of methane emissions during the period the diet was fed (the last three to four months of the cow’s life).”

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But the claims have not been proven — and seem very dubious, said Tim McAllister, an internationally known Agriculture Canada researcher in Lethbridge who has studied methane emissions from cattle.

“Don’t get too excited about it,” he said. “I went through the literature. There was one published study out of the Pakistani Journal of Animal Nutrition that was talking about lemongrass and essential oils.”

While researchers have been looking at essential oils and condensed tannins to reduce methane emissions, McAllister doesn’t think enough research has been done on lemongrass to be able to make claims.

“I’m very pessimistic about its effectiveness,” he said.

The researcher wasn’t the only one who wan’t impressed by the campaign, which features 13-year-old YouTube star Mason Ramsey singing how “methane from their rear goes up through the atmosphere.”

“Unfortunately, Burger King has chosen a different path, relying on kitschy imagery that misrepresents basic bovine biology — cattle emissions come from burps, not farts,” said the U.S. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “And on the potential impact of a single ruminant nutrition study that was so small and poorly conceived, it was dismissed by many leading (non-government organizations) and beef industry experts.”

McAllister said he spoke with a scientist who ran one of the experiments feeding lemongrass to cattle at the University of California, Davis, and was told they never got the kind of responses reported by the researchers in Mexico. There could be a difference in the concentration of tannins in the Mexican lemongrass, but it still wouldn’t account for a one-third decrease in emissions, he said.

“Going back to the literature, I’d be very surprised to see a significant reduction with anything like that. It’s highly unlikely,” he said.

Condensed tannins, which appear in some plants like sainfoin, can alter the metabolism of the animal. Grasses, even lemongrass, are not known for high tannin levels.

The studies on the effectiveness of lemongrass as a methane-reducing feed additive have not been published and are currently undergoing a second peer review.

“I haven’t seen the paper. I don’t know how solid their data is, how the methane was even measured,” McAllister. “There’s a lot of things unknown that are not very clear.

“We need more scientific research to make those claims. It’s not in the literature, as far as I can tell.”

There are good studies, however, that have shown feeding seaweed to cattle can reduce methane emissions, but it’s not an easy fix as seaweed needs to be dried, transported and stored.

“Some of the work that was done with harvesting it was done with harvesting it off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia,” he said. “That’s not going to be a practice that’s encouraged. There’s a lot of unknowns there.”

In the meantime, McAllister has some advice for the burger chain.

“My underlying recommendation is that Burger King needs to find some new consultants.”

– With staff files

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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