Once upon a time, back when Ray Kroc was still pushing milkshake machines, a hamburger and fries meant a wad of freshly ground chuck and a peeled, sliced, and fried potato. Now, these two iconic foods—like nearly everything we consume—has taken on a whole new meaning. Sadly, many of our favorite foods today (especially fast foods) weren’t merely crafted in kitchens, they were also designed and perfected in labs. We uncovered the ugly truth in the course of our research for the Eat This, Not That! and new Cook This, Not That! series. What we found was not pretty.
Before you mindlessly chew your way through another value meal, take these mini-mysteries (conveniently solved below) into account. Sometimes the truth is tough to swallow.
What’s in a Chicken McNugget?
You’d think that a breaded lump of chicken would be pretty simple. Mostly, it would contain bread and chicken. But the McNugget and its peers at other fast-food restaurants are much more complicated creatures than that. The “meat” in the McNugget alone contains seven ingredients, some of which are made up of yet more ingredients. (Nope, it’s not just chicken. It’s also such nonchicken-related stuff as water, wheat starch, dextrose, safflower oil, and sodium phosphates.) The “meat” also contains something called “autolyzed yeast extract.” Then add another 20 ingredients that make up the breading, and you have the industrial chemical—I mean, fast-food meal—called the McNugget. Still, McDonald’s is practically all-natural compared to Wendy’s Chicken Nuggets, with 30 ingredients, and Burger King Chicken Fries, with a whopping 35 ingredients.
Bonus tip: For the nutritional breakdown of each of these “chicken” meals, and thousands others, download the brand-new Eat This, Not That! iPhone App! It’s like having your own personal nutritionist always at your fingertips!
What’s in a Wendy’s Frosty?
Wendy’s Frosty requires 14 ingredients to create what traditional shakes achieve with only milk and ice cream. So what accounts for the double-digit ingredient list? Mostly a barrage of thickening agents that includes guar gum, cellulose gum, and carrageenan. And while that’s enough to disqualify it as a milk shake in our book, it’s nothing compared to the chemist’s list of ingredients in the restaurant’s new line of bulked-up Frankenfrosties.
Check out the Coffee Toffee Twisted Frosty, for instance. It seems harmless enough; the only additions, after all, are “coffee syrup” and “coffee toffee pieces.” The problem is that those two additions collectively contain 25 extra ingredients, seven of which are sugars and three of which are oils. And get this: Rather than a classic syrup, the “coffee syrup” would more accurately be described as a blend of water, high-fructose corn syrup, and propylene glycol, a laxative chemical that’s used as an emulsifier in food and a filler in electronic cigarettes. Of all 10 ingredients it takes to make the syrup, coffee doesn’t show up until near the end, eight items down the list.
Bonus tip: Not all restaurant desserts will detonate your diet. See which frozen treats made our popular list of The 39 Best Healthy Foods in America.
What’s in a Filet-O-Fish?
The world’s most famous fish sandwich begins as one of the ocean’s ugliest creatures. Filet-O-Fish, like many of the fish patties used by fast-food chains, is made predominantly from hoki, a gnarly, crazy-eyed fish found in the cold waters off the coast of New Zealand. In the past, McDonald’s has purchased up to 15 million pounds of hoki a year, each flaky fillet destined for a coat of batter, a bath of oil, a squirt of tartar, and a final resting place in a warm, squishy bun. But it seems the world’s appetite for this and other fried-fish sandwiches has proven too voracious, as New Zealand has been forced to cut the allowable catch over the years in order to keep the hoki population from collapsing. Don’t expect McDonald’s to scale down Filet-O-Fish output anytime soon, though; other whitefish like Alaskan pollock will likely fill in the gaps left by the hoki downturn. After all, once it’s battered and fried, do you really think you’ll know the difference?
Bonus tip: About a quarter of your day's caloric consumption comes from what you drink. Defy that stat: Avoid the 20 Unhealthiest Drinks in America. You'll be shocked by this list.
What’s in my salami sandwich?
Salami, the mystery meat: Is it cow? Is it pig? Well, if you’re talking Genoa salami, like you’d get at Subway, then it’s both. Most salami is made from slaughterhouse leftovers that are gathered using “advanced meat recovery,” which sounds like a rehab center for vegans but is actually a mechanical process that strips the last remaining bits of muscle off the bone so nothing is wasted. It’s then processed using lactic acid, the waste product produced by bacteria in the meat. It both gives the salami its tangy flavor and cures it as well, making it an inhospitable place for other bacteria to grow. Add in a bunch of salt and spices—for a total of 15 ingredients in all—and you’ve got salami. But now that you know what’s in there, you might need to check yourself into an advanced meat recovery center.
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