In response to a 30% drop in sales, the marketing team at McDonald’s decided to ramp up their selling campaign efforts and create a series of ads aimed at providing customers with transparency regarding the ingredients in their products.
They even had a catchy title and motto: “Our food. Your questions.”
Customers had the chance to reach out to the popular fast food brand and ask questions on topics ranging from food quality and ingredients, to how the food is sourced and prepared.
McDonald’s even carved out a nice section on their website for these questions and answers.
Since they were facing their critics head on I had to applaud McDonald’s from a business standpoint, but from a nutritional angle, I was skeptical that we the public would get any concrete answers to some of the most controversial questions.
Are there really harmful ingredients in the food at McDonald’s?
And if there are, how bad are they?
Let’s see McDonald’s viewpoint.
When you visit the page on McDonald’s website dedicated to answering consumer questions, you’re immediately greeted with two phrases in big, bold font:
- Quality Matters, and
- Good Ingredients, Good Food
Here’s the marketing quote:
“Our goal is quality above all else. From the potatoes that become World Famous Fries to the fresh produce in our salads and the 100% pure beef in our burgers, we’re committed to serving you the very best.”
I don’t know about you, but everytime I think about McDonald’s french fries, I’m reminded of the study done from 2008-2012 where McDonald’s and KFC french fries were put into a jar and left to decay.
As you can tell from this photograph, the McDonald’s fries look untouched and almost as pristine as the day they were ordered, while the KFC french fries were covered in mold and not even remotely close to their original form.
So what’s in these mummified potatoes?
According to McDonald’s, you’ll find potatoes, vegetable oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor, dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and salt.
In addition, thanks to that “natural beef flavor”, the fries and any other food prepared by the company, are not certified as vegetarian or vegan. Who knew the fries had beef flavor in them?
Unfortunately, the only ingredient in that list that’s not questionable in my book is the potatoes.
The first ingredient that has me concerned is dextrose. Dextrose is actually a sugar; probably not what you’d expect to find in a salty french fry. We mentioned that sugar is hiding everywhere and this just proves it.
So what’s the big deal with dextrose?
According to Livestrong, we’re looking at fat storage, hypoglycemia, and hyperglycemia.
Here’s the issue:
Our cells need dextrose, but consuming too much of it can lead to fat storage. We also mentioned in our Paleo article that at one point in our human evolution, we needed this type of fuel storage since we were unsure of when our next meal would come. But fast forward to the modern age and this fat storage is only adding extra unwanted pounds that we usually want to get rid of.
In addition to storing fat, dextrose can also cause spikes in blood sugar levels. For those with diabetes, hyperglycemia–a quick and significant spike in blood sugar levels–takes place when dextrose enters the body. When this happens, the pancreas overworks itself and the body doesn’t know how to process or respond to the insulin being released.
But those of us without diabetes shouldn’t rest comfortably either. Hypoglycemia can still happen to us.
Unlike diabetics, the cells in our bodies understand that large quantities of insulin produced via hyperglycemia are detrimental to our tissues. The cells start absorbing way too much of the blood sugar and the result? Low blood sugar levels.
Low blood sugar levels will give you symptoms such as:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sudden mood changes
- Sudden nervousness
- Unexplained fatigue
If you’ve ever felt tired after a McDonald’s meal, it should come as no surprise why. You can thank the dextrose in your french fries for that.
Sodium acid pyrophosphate
When I hear sodium acid pyrophosphate, I automatically assume the ingredient is salt based. But this acid pyrophosphate stuff threw me off.
In turns out, sodium acid pyrophosphate is a common ingredient found in baking. It’s used as a leavening agent and also helps to preserve the color of food. Since french fries don’t need leavening like fresh baked bread, this stuff had to be used for food coloring purposes. I can’t even imagine what color the fries might be without this.
Color preservation isn’t sodium acid pyrophosphate’s only job though.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Sodium acid pyrophosphate reduces the levels of the carcinogen acrylamide in french fries.”
Studies mentioned by the National Institute of Cancer (NIC) also found that “the levels of acrylamide in foods pose a ‘major concern’ and that more research is needed to determine the risk of dietary acrylamide exposure.”
The NIC article continues on to say that: “The National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider acrylamide to be a “probable human carcinogen.”
All of this from simply eating McDonald’s french fries?
I’m almost too afraid to move on to another popular item on the menu, the cheeseburger.
Similar to the french fry decay, Refinery29 tracked the progress of a McDonald’s happy meal over the course of 137 days. If you’re like me you’re not going to get these images out of your head.
Here’s the first picture:
And here is the Happy Meal on day 137:
As you can tell, not much has changed. You can see the full progression right here.
This is what we’re feeding our kids. Food that never seems to decay.
However, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen hamburgers become fossilized. David Whipple from Utah accidentally left a McDonald’s hamburger in his coat pocket where it remained for 14 years. As you can probably guess, the burger looked about the same 14 years later.
How can something that’s supposedly made fresh be able to last over a decade?
I’m sure you’re dying to see what else is hiding between those buns.
A cheeseburger can run you around 290 calories. On top of a 100% beef patty, you’ll find pasteurized processed American cheese, ketchup, pickle slices, onions, and mustard. That list doesn’t look too bad on the surface. In fact, it looks better than the french fry list.
What about the pink slime?
If you’re familiar with this gross YouTube video, then you’re probably wondering if the burgers and chicken nuggets at McDonald’s contain the yogurt consistency known as pink slime.
Pink slime is a mixture of ground up pieces of meat trimmings from different parts of the cow used as a filler in ground meat products. Since this mixture’s pink color is off-putting and since the meat is usually bacteria ridden, ammonia is added to lessen the unnatural hue and kill microorganisms that would normally make us sick.
McDonald’s says there’s no pink slime in their 100% pure beef patties. Their site stresses that “nothing else is added” to their patties, including fillers and extenders.
I had a feeling there was more to the story so I turned to the pasteurized processed American cheese.
The ingredient list for the cheese is a mix of milk, cream, water, cheese culture, sodium citrate, 2% or less of salt, citric acid, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid (preservatives), lactic acid, acetic acid, enzymes, sodium pyrophosphate, natural flavor, color added, and soy lecithin (for slice separation).
So the all-beef patties don’t contain preservatives, but it’s okay for the cheese to have some, plus ingredients that are totally unrecognizable, too.
And what about the buns?
The buns are packed with enriched bleached flour, water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, soybean oil, wheat gluten, leavening, mono and diglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, and calcium propionate (another preservative).
This list is nothing short of a chemical nightmare for your body. And McDonald’s knows this.
After a semi-recent uproar affecting Subway restaurants, McDonald’s wanted to make it perfectly clear that azodicarbonamide, or ADA, is nothing to be scared of. Sure, you can use ADA for making yoga mats and bake bread with it, that’s totally normal. McDondald’s even compared the ingredient to the salt you sprinkle on your food and the salt you de-ice your driveways with, stating: “The same is true of ADA–it can be used in different ways.”
No, the buns are not made of yoga mats. But they do contain the same ingredient that can help make materials like plastics that go in yoga mats. Somehow this doesn’t seem like something we should be ingesting.
High fructose corn syrup
The confusion around high fructose corn syrup is always interesting and I blame strategic marketing for the mixed messages us consumers have to decode.
The truth is clear…high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) wreaks havoc on your body and should always be avoided, no matter what the commercials say.
HFCS is usually found in low-quality foods as a means of adding flavor and making foods sweeter so they taste better. It’s a chemical that your body doesn’t know how to process correctly.
What ends up happening?
Instead of digesting the HFCS, the sugar substitute goes straight to the liver, which is unable to process the ingredient effectively. This results in a fatty liver.
According to the Huffington Post: “High fructose corn syrup is the real driver of the current epidemic of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, dementia, and of course, Type 2 diabetes.”
I haven’t seen McDonald’s address this ingredient yet.
You may have noticed that some of the ingredients I’ve mentioned end with the word “phosphate.” Phosphates are similar to dextrose, your body needs them, but too much can do just the opposite for our health.
According to LiveStrong, “If you consume too many phosphates–especially as an additive in processed foods–you may increase your risk of heart disease and exacerbate kidney disease symptoms.”
An article published by Deutsches Arzteblatt International is pushing for labels on foods containing phosphate additives. According to the study, higher consumption levels have led to higher mortality rates in patients who already have a renal disease.
After the burger and fries, there’s one more classic menu item that I had to learn more about: the McNuggets.
When you visit the McDonald’s site, questions about the Chicken McNuggets are more numerous than any other.
No, the McNuggets don’t have pink slime in them. And according to the site, there’s no hormones either.
“We start with white-meat chicken cut from the tenderloin, breast, and rib, and grind it with a small amount of chicken skin for flavor and juiciness to help them keep their fun shape.”
Sounds so tasty, doesn’t it?
Let’s look at the ingredient list and decide for ourselves: white boneless chicken, food starch-modified, salt seasoning, safflower oil, dextrose, sodium phosphates, natural flavor, breading (water, enriched flour, yellow corn flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening, spices, wheat starch, dextrose, and corn starch).
Do you see any repeat offenders in that list?
I see dextrose in the meat, sodium phosphate, dextrose in the breading, and safflower oil. Remember when we ranked safflower oil as one of the top oils to avoid?
The Chicken McNuggets contain just as many questionable ingredients as the fries and cheeseburgers.
Our bodies were not designed to digest these foreign substances. Imagine how our bodies struggle with trying to digest food that doesn’t even deteriorate in jars or out in the open for months or even years. They just can’t do it.
Your best bet is to skip the golden arches, or any fast food restaurant for that matter, and opt for a diet of whole, unprocessed foods instead. Sure it may take some extra time to pack a meal for your busy life on the go, but you’ll have peace of mind not fearing questionable ingredients, and your body will feel so much better as a result.
Which ingredient surprised you the most?