An unusual hamburger experiment is part of the University of Minnesota’s dietary research annals
What happens when you take a healthy young man and feed him nothing but hamburgers and water for three months? It sounds like the genesis of an edgy film—and in fact Super Size Me, a 2004 documentary, followed one man’s 30-day immersion in McDonald’s cuisine—but a real-life version of this experiment took place at the University of Minnesota in the early 1930s.
This tale of experimental hamburger gluttony had its genesis in the 1920s in the mind of Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, owner of the White Castle fast-food chain. Then headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, White Castle was growing quickly, but widely held skepticism about the cleanliness and healthfulness of hamburgers concerned Ingram.
“The hamburger habit is just about as safe as walking in a garden while the arsenic spray is being applied,” wrote the authors of a cautionary book of that era about nutrition, “and about as safe as getting your meat out of a garbage can standing in the hot sun. For beyond all doubt, the garbage can is where the chopped meat sold by most butchers belongs, as well as a large percentage of all the hamburger that goes into sandwiches.”
Ingram resolved to convince a university researcher to put the healthfulness of hamburgers to a test. He found a taker in Jesse McClendon, Ph.D., a 49-year-old native of Alabama who had accepted a position in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Physiological Chemistry after teaching at Cornell University and Randolph Macon College.
Considered one of the most important figures in American biochemistry, McClendon was a talented researcher who had made his name studying the composition of hemoglobin, the mechanics of human digestion, the connection between dietary fluoride and reductions in tooth decay, and the effects of iodine deficiency. Experimentation on humans did not frighten him: He once had swallowed a bulky electrical device to measure the acidity of his own duodenum.
The White Castle project allowed the biochemist to devise a study that would influence public thought (as well as hamburger sales) for years to come. McClendon knew that earlier studies had shown that adult dogs fed for a month on only lean meat appeared to fare well, and that humans on temporary all-meat diets lost calcium and phosphorus but didn’t develop deficiency diseases. He planned to feed a single experimental subject only White Castle hamburgers—including the bun, onions, and pickles—and water for 13 weeks.
A willing subject presented himself: Bernard Flesche, a U of M medical student working his way through school. Flesche kept a diary during the ordeal. “He started out very enthusiastic about eating 10 burgers at a sitting,” notes his daughter, Deirdre Flesche, “but a couple of weeks into it, he was losing his enthusiasm.” His sister frequently tried to tempt him with fresh vegetables, but Flesche allowed nothing but White Castle Slyders™ to pass his lips.
One for the research annals
Thirteen weeks on a hamburger diet may sound arduous, but it’s nothing compared with an experiment conducted by Ancel Keys, Ph.D., founder of the University’s Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene. In 1944-45, he put 36 volunteers through a grueling diet designed to simulate the effects of famine and reduce the body weight of the subjects by 25 percent. From Keys’s research came information that guided efforts to aid victims of starvation in the aftermath of World War II. His lab also developed survival rations for combat troops as well as objective methods of measuring body fat, work capacity, blood lipids, signs of heart disease, and blood pressure. Keys later performed groundbreaking research linking heart disease with diets high in fat and cholesterol.
More recent diet and nutrition research at the University has been equally significant. During the closing decades of the 20th century, medical and public health faculty produced strong evidence of the cancer-fighting properties of certain vegetables, the connection between low blood cholesterol levels and increased lifespan, and the benefits of whole grains in the diet in lowering heart disease risk.
Many U of M nutrition researchers are now focusing on a problem of heightened current interest: obesity. Simone French, Ph.D., Mary Story, Ph.D., and colleagues in the School of Public Health study the eating choices of children, adults, and entire families, and how awareness, availability, and economic forces direct those choices. The Early Risk Reduction Clinic in the Department of Pediatrics researches the causes and treatment of childhood obesity. One University study, published last year in the journal Public Health Nutrition, linked familial obesity with frequent fast-food meals and poor access to healthy food at home.
Too much of a good thing
But long before we became a fast-food nation, Bernard Flesche lasted through all 13 weeks of his White Castle hamburger binge. “The student maintained good health throughout the three-month period and was eating 20 to 24 hamburgers a day during the last few weeks,” fast-food mogul Ingram stated, adding that the research proved that customers “could eat nothing but our sandwiches and water, and fully develop all [their] physical and mental faculties.” McClendon’s study became a prominent part of White Castle’s advertising.
Flesche went on to practice medicine in Lake City, Minnesota. He died from heart problems at the age of 54. One immediate and chronic effect of his participation in the study: “He never willingly ate hamburgers again,” says his daughter.
By Jack El-Hai