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 foodsâ€”like nearly everything we consumeâ€”has taken on a whole new meaning. Sadly, many of our favorite foods today (especially fast foods) werenâ€™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.Â 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.
Whatâ€™s in a Chicken McNugget?
Youâ€™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 â€œmeatâ€ in the McNugget alone contains seven ingredients, some of which are made up of yet more ingredients. (Nope, itâ€™s not just chicken. Itâ€™s also such nonchicken-related stuff as water, wheat starch, dextrose, safflower oil, and sodium phosphates.) The â€œmeatâ€ also contains something called â€œautolyzed yeast extract.â€ Then add another 20 ingredients that make up the breading, and you have the industrial chemicalâ€”I mean, fast-food mealâ€”called the McNugget. Still, McDonaldâ€™s is practically all-natural compared to Wendyâ€™s Chicken Nuggets, with 30 ingredients, and Burger King Chicken Fries, with a whopping 35 ingredients.
Whatâ€™s in a Wendyâ€™s Frosty?
Wendyâ€™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 thatâ€™s enough to disqualify it as a milk shake in our book, itâ€™s nothing compared to the chemistâ€™s list of ingredients in the restaurantâ€™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 â€œcoffee syrupâ€ and â€œcoffee toffee pieces.â€ The problem is that those two additions collectively Âcontain 25 extra ingredients, seven of which are sugars and three of which are oils. And get this: Rather than a classic syrup, the â€œcoffee syrupâ€ would more accurately be described as a blend of water, high-fructose corn syrup, and propylene glycol, a laxative chemical thatâ€™s used as an emulsifier in food and a filler in electronic cigarettes. Of all 10 ingredients it takes to make the syrup, coffee doesnâ€™t show up until near the end, eight items down the list.
Whatâ€™s in a Filet-O-Fish?
The worldâ€™s most famous fish sandwich begins as one of the oceanâ€™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, McDonaldâ€™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 worldâ€™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. Donâ€™t expect McDonaldâ€™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 itâ€™s battered and fried, do you really think youâ€™ll know the difference?
Whatâ€™s in my salami sandwich?
Salami, the mystery meat: Is it cow? Is it pig? Well, if youâ€™re talking Genoa salami, like youâ€™d get at Subway, then itâ€™s both. Most salami is made from slaughterhouse leftovers that are gathered using â€œadvanced meat recovery,â€ 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. Itâ€™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 inhosÂpitable place for other bacteria to grow. Add in a bunch of salt and spicesâ€”for a total of 15 ingredients in allâ€”and youâ€™ve got salami. But now that you know whatâ€™s in there, you might need to check yourself into an advanced meat recovery center.