If you think McDonald’s French fries taste good because they are real food, take a look at these exposés from Wired.com, Care2, and Food Babe. Today’s Wired.com article prompted me to do some research about those famous fries. Although I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in many years, I still remember the fries as tasting much better than those at other fast food restaurants. So what happened?
The story of McDonald’s fries takes a path similar to many of today’s processed and restaurant foods. Many of the Real Food ingredients have been replaced with factory-made, cheaper, more shelf stable substitutes so that calling the resulting products “food” is probably a stretch. Certainly they are not Real Food!
Here’s what the McDonald’s website says is in their fries.
Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Natural Beef Flavor [Wheat and Milk Derivatives]*, Citric Acid
[Preservative]), Dextrose, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate (Maintain Color), Salt. Prepared in Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean
Oil with TBHQ and Citric Acid added to preserve freshness), Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent. CONTAINS: WHEAT AND MILK.
*Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients.
Let’s look at some of these ingredients.
The carefully selected, uniformly sized potatoes are par-cooked to remove excess sugars that cause uneven cooking. You will see later how they add back the sugar . . .
Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate
The potatoes are then treated with sodium acid pyrophosphate to retain color. There don’t seem to be any major objections to this food additive, except you might take in excess phosphates if you eat a lot of processed foods, where it is a common additive. In addition to maintaining color, it is also used to shorten (or lengthen) fermentation time in baked goods, increase shelf life, as “a buffering and chelating agent in canned and processed seafood,” and “as a scald agent in products made from potatoes and sugar syrups.” [source]
Vegetable Oil and TBHQ
The taste of McDonald’s French fries “played a crucial role in the chain’s success — fries are much more profitable than hamburgers — and was long praised by customers, competitors, and even food critics.” Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, explains why McDonald’s French fries used to taste so good!
The taste of a french fry is largely determined by the cooking oil. For decades McDonald’s cooked its french fries in a mixture of about seven percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent beef tallow. The mixture gave the fries their unique flavor — and more saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald’s hamburger. [Read much more about the original flavor of McDonald’s fries.]
But, of course, the misguided “saturated fat police” agitated for McDonald’s to switch to vegetable oil, which doesn’t taste nearly as good (nor is it as healthy either). McDonald’s now uses a combination of “canola (about 8 percent saturated fat), soybean oil (16 percent), and hydrogenated soybean oil (94 percent)” in the factory, and “corn oil and an additive called TBHQ, or tertbutylhydroquinone” and citric acid for the second, in-store, frying. [source]
Citric Acid as a Preservative
Although McDonald’s doesn’t reveal its source for the citric acid preservative it uses in its fries, most commercial citric acid today is not the natural food you would expect from the name. Instead of an extract of citrus fruits, it is derived from a process using corn that is probably GMO.
. . .the major industrial route to citric acid used today, cultures of A. niger [a fungus that causes black mold on certain fruits and vegetables] are fed on a sucrose or glucose-containing medium to produce citric acid. The source of sugar is corn steep liquor, molasses, hydrolyzed corn starch or other inexpensive sugary solutions. After the mold is filtered out of the resulting solution, citric acid is isolated by precipitating it with lime (calcium hydroxide) to yield calcium citrate salt, from which citric acid is regenerated by treatment with sulfuric acid [source]
To replace the pleasant taste of potatoes fried in beef tallow, when they switched to vegetable oil, McDonald’s now doctor their fries with “‘Natural beef flavor,’ which contains hydrolyzed wheat and milk proteins.” Hydrolyzed proteins are among many hidden sources of MSG.
Dimethylpolysiloxane has a wide range of uses from “contact lenses and medical devices to elastomers; it is also present in shampoos (as dimethicone makes hair shiny and slippery), food (antifoaming agent), caulking, lubricating oils, and heat-resistant tiles.” [source] Here are some of the ways it is used in food.
Dimethylpolysiloxane is silicone based agent used as an anti-foaming, anti-caking agent, and emulsifier in processed foods. Dimethylpolysiloxane is found in many fast food restaurants to avoid deep frying oil from foaming increasing the life of the oil. Dimethylpolysiloxane is also used in soft drinks, instant coffees, chewing gum, vinegars, cooking oils, confectionary snacks, syrups and chocolates. Dimethylpolysiloxane is used in the manufacturing of skimmed milk and wine fermentation. It can also be found energy or electrolyte drinks. [source]
Although it is apparently not thought to be toxic, whatever it is, it is certainly not a traditional, Real Food!
Final Sugar Coating
To add back the naturally sweet taste of the potato which was removed by blanching at the factory, the fries are coated in a dextrose (corn-derived and probably GMO) solution after cooking. [source] Adding sugars is a common method of the processed food industry to make cheap, inferior foods taste better.
GMOs and Pesticides
On top of the unnatural ingredients and hidden MSG, the oils used are genetically modified and none of the ingredients are organic. They probably contain traces of various herbicides and insecticides as extra unlisted ingredients. Read more about GMOs here and here.
Are All These Ingredients and All That Processing Really Necessary?
Food Babe is super good at revealing the real story behind processed foods. She learned that the French fries in McDonald’s in the United Kingdom aren’t prepared at all like those in the U.S.! In the UK, McDonald’s fries have only four ingredients, plus salt, and one of the four–dextrose–is only added at the beginning of the season (maybe the potatoes aren’t as sweet then?) Admittedly, the UK fries are cooked in unhealthy vegetable oils (canola/rapeseed and sunflower), but at least the oils aren’t hydrogenated. If fries can be made with only four ingredients in the UK, why are ours so much more unhealthy? Is it because McDonald’s can get away with it here?
I can’t talk about fried foods, especially potatoes, without mentioning the acrylamide that is formed during the high heat process. Acrylamide was discovered by Swedish scientists in 2002. It is found in many foods but is especially common in starchy foods cooked at temperatures above 250 degrees Fahrenheit. “Foods such as French fries and potato chips seem to have the highest levels of acrylamide, but it is also found in breads and other grain products. Acrylamide does not form (or forms at lower levels) in dairy, meat, and fish products.” [source] Some studies have shown adverse effects from high does of acrylamide, [source] so it is probably a good idea to eat starchy fried foods like potatoes only occasionally.
I’m glad I don’t eat at McDonald’s. Do you?
Update July 24, 2015: Michael Pollan talks about McDonald’s French fries: “When McDonald’s is ready to harvest their potatoes, they have to put them in giant atmospheric controlled sheds the size of football stadiums because they are not edible for six weeks. ‘They have to off gas all the chemicals in them.'”