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Monday, November 15, 2010

8 Reasons McDonald's Isn't as Bad as You Think

There are plenty of good reasons not to eat at McDonald’s.  Their menu is filled with junk that is high in fat, sodium and sugar while relegating vitamins, fiber and nutrients to more of an “afterthought” position.  As a corporation they have an environmental record that is spotty at best and they’ve never made it clear exactly what the Grimace is, or why a food producing company would want to associate itself with a character called “The Grimace”.

Seriously... what the hell is that?

All of that being said, it never fails to amaze me how people will overlook all of these legitimate reasons to fault the company.  Instead, people seem content to seize upon urban legends and Internet memes to demonize the world’s leading producer of cardiac arrest.  I have not eaten in a McDonalds in more than 5 years and would not do so unless I was starving or in danger of having to cook for myself.  Despite that, I grow weary of some of the more egregious claims that have been leveled against that poor clown.

 #1) McDonald's Burgers Don’t Rot 

The Claim: “McDonald’s burgers are so chocked full of preservatives that you can leave one out indefinitely and it will never mold or rot.”

The Truth: “Neither will a burger that you cook at home.”

I’m leading off with this one because it seems to be incredibly prevalent across the web at the moment.  Dozens of would-be investigators are repeating this bogus experiment on blogs and You-Tube webisodes and they keep coming to the same conclusion.  McDonald’s burgers are immune to rot.
Apparently this burger is 600 years old.

Supposedly this indicates something bad.  It seems like a bit of mental gymnastic would be needed to connect lack of mold with lack of healthiness, but far too many people are willing to swallow the explanation offered.  The claim is often made that the burgers in question are nearly plastic because of the careless infusion of chemicals with frighteningly polysyllabic names.

This is the unfortunate byproduct of our nation’s poor science education.  While it is true that a McDonald’s hamburger will not mold or rot if left out in the right environment, the conclusions this is meant to support are pretty random.  McDonald’s burgers fail to rot not because they are plastic but because they are small.  With toasted buns and thoroughly cooked meat there is very little moisture left in the burger, thus they quickly dehydrate if they are left out.  Once the moisture has evaporated, it would be impossible for mold to grow.

Remember, kids, mold=healthy!

It should be noted that a number of conditions have to be met for the “unrottable burger” experiment to work. It must be a small burger rather than a quarter-pounder or a third-pounder.  Larger burgers retain more moisture and are thus far more prone to molding before they dehydrate completely.  Any burger as small and cooked as the typical McDonald’s burger will have the same results if left in the same environment.  Incidentally, it is easy to make the regular burger rot as well by simply keeping it in a moist environment.  Put a McDonald’s burger in a plastic bag for a day and a half and the preservative argument starts to rot as quickly as the burger.

 #2) Look What Happened to Morgan Spurlock 

The Claim: “Eating a McDonald’s diet can turn an otherwise healthy person into a dead man walking in 30 days time.”

The Truth: “Only if you eat 4000 calories a day.”

In 2004, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock released a scathing expose on the fast food industry in a film titled “Supersize Me”.  In the film, Spurlock subjected himself to a “nothing-but-McDonald’s” diet for 3 meals a day for a thirty-day period.  Throughout the film, we watched as this relatively healthy man developed dangerously high blood pressure, gained unsightly weight and frightened his doctor with kidneys his doctor compared to those of a binge alcoholic.

While the movie itself was chocked full of great information and made some very salient points about not only McDonald’s but the greater American diet, the whole 30 days of McDonald’s thing was a misleading gimmick that cast an air of deceit over the whole project.

Here, a before and after picture is shown...

If you’ve seen the film, you know that there are two stipulations on his diet that were clearly designed to prejudice the experiment against McDonald’s.  One was that he had to eat every bite of everything he got.  The second was that if they asked him if he wanted to “supersize” his meal, he had to say yes.  Just to ensure that he would get the most shocking benefits possible, he radically reduced the amount of exercise he was getting throughout the ordeal as well.

In the film, he fights with his body to force down more and more McDonalds.  He fights to finish his supersized fries to the point of vomiting in the parking lot of the restaurant.  In real life, there is no McFascist strolling through the place and wrapping people on the knuckles for not finishing every bite.  In real life, nobody would continue to eat their food long after they were physically sick from the intake.  In real life, nobody would avoid walking in order to maximize the damage that his diet was doing.

The silliness of the gimmick nearly ruins an otherwise useful documentary.  He spends a great deal of time discussing the roots of our country’s bad diet and the effect it is having on our children.  But it would have been more valid if he had admitted at any point that all the negative health effects he was seeing would have been the same if he was gorging on 4000 calories a day of bean sprouts and acai berries.

 #3) McDonald's is an Evil Corporation 

The Claim: “McDonalds board members are James Bond villains bent on destroying human health.”

The Truth: “No more so than the next guy.”

America is a nation that loves to both hate and fund large corporations.  The bigger they are, the more we hate them and the more we give them our money.  Few corporations have earned the level of national avarice we reserve for McDonald’s, though in the national psyche they are still saintly compared to Wal-Mart.

I just wish Batman would kick his ass one time...

But in truth McDonald’s is a far more responsive and charitable corporation than most people are willing to give them credit for.  McDonald’s operating executives are well aware of our countrywide distaste for mega-corporations and seek to counteract that by investing in local and global charities to offset their Scrooge-esque reputation.

The Ronald McDonald house is, of course, a highly visible charitable program that does important work all over the country, but this is hardly the extent of McDonald’s corporate philanthropy.  From sponsoring local sports teams, coat drives and charitable organizations to finding new ways to incorporate national charity drives, McDonald’s has been a consistently generous giver for more than thirty years.  While they never rank at the top of corporate philanthropy (at the moment, that spot is reserved for arch-villain Wal-Mart), they are still one of the world’s largest sources of charitable funds.

But even the best intentions often backfire for McDonald’s.  When they do give, they are often faulted for not giving enough.  The company recently advertised plans to donate a portion of the proceeds for every Happy Meal to the Ronald McDonald house.  For this, they were summarily attacked across the blogosphere for the relative size of the donation.  Doing math with assumed numbers, critics showed that McDonald’s was donating about one cent per happy meal.

Pictured: A pittance

While that figure seems infinitesimal, if it is true it adds up to about six and a half million dollars a year.  McDonalds does not freely admit the profit margin on a Happy Meal, but depending on the toy inside it is often near zero.  At the high end they profit about 30 cents per little bag of cholesterol, which means that at the low end of the spectrum they are donating about 3% of profit.  During high value promotions they likely lose money on the Happy Meal and make up for it with the Angus burger dad buys which means that the one-penny donation is total loss.

A strong argument can be made that McDonalds could do more as a corporate partner to the community, but I tend to forgive them for not ramping up their charitable efforts simply because regardless of their philanthropy they still enjoy the same public derision.

 #4) McDonald's is an Evil Employer 

The Claim: “The only way to find a job worse than McDonalds is to sell yourself in the overseas slave trade.”

The Truth: “Working at McDonalds sucks about as bad as any other minimum wage job.”

Pictured: Evil

I’m sure there are many former McDonalds employees that could spend a few thousand words explaining exactly how terrible an employer the clown really is.  They could tell you horror stories of being asked to bend safety regulations for the sake of profit.  They could tell you stories of sexual harassment, age discrimination, unfair and illegal labor practices and abusive, petty management.

Sound a bit like your job?

There’s no denying that working for McDonalds is a crappy job.  It is, in fact, the cultural standard for a bad job.  Nobody over the age of 17 has ever said, “I’m really hoping to get that position with McDonalds” and if they did, you would almost hope that they were mentally challenged.

But the crappiness of a job at Mickey-D’s should be considered on a relative scale.  If you compare it with a job taking lingerie models on Jet Ski tours for eight hundred dollars an hour, it is a pretty terrible job.  If you compare it with anything else the average entry level McDonalds employee is qualified to do, it’s about standard.

I don’t want to downplay how poorly McDonald’s franchises often treat their lowest level employees.  Many of them are teenagers or undereducated people who don’t always know when labor laws are being broken.  They are often asked to clock out for extended periods and wait for business to spike.  They are often deliberately kept right below the threshold for benefits and full time employment status.  They are often mistreated into resignation rather than outright fired.  All of these practices are abhorrent.

That being said, they are hardly exclusive to McDonald’s.  In fact, those unfortunate enough to work for a non­-franchise restaurant are far more likely to experience these abominable employment practices.  If a McDonald’s employee is treated unfairly they might at least have the recourse of an area manager or a corporate HR hotline.  Those who work for family owned businesses have no recourse but government agencies.  These agencies are too often understaffed, under-funded and overwhelmed by complainants who don’t know the difference between an employer acting illegally and an employer just acting like a jerk.

The uniforms alone should violate employment laws.

But even if McDonald’s did consistently rank as one of the worst American companies to work for (and it does), the negatives should be counterbalanced by a few of the things McDonald’s does right.  It and businesses like it are often the only recourse for high school dropouts, convicts getting out of prison and those who are otherwise unemployable.  It is one of the few places that virtually anyone can get a job and, with consistent focus and hard work, reach a living wage.  The next time you see a group of misfits working overnights at a McDonalds, think about what they might be doing if there were no jobs for them.

 #5) McDonald's Facilities are Disgusting 

The Claim: “You’d be better off eating food that was cooked in an irradiated landfill than one cooked in a McDonald’s kitchen.”

The Truth: “It’s cleaner than more than 50% of the home kitchen’s you’ve ever seen.”

If you believe the anti-Ronald fringe, employees of McDonald’s spend approximately 40% of their time urinating in various food products.  They are unclean heathens singularly focused on adding some disgusting bodily excretion to your Filet-O-Fish sandwich and they will stop at nothing to create a public health epidemic.

Obviously this can’t be true or McDonald’s customers would have long ago died out in the great diphtheria outbreak of 1987.  But occasionally stories crop up about rats or roaches or some other vomit-inducing health code violation that caused a McDonald’s to close its doors.  Even the more extreme claims have certainly happened in isolated incidents among the billions upon billions of meals that this single company has served.

But like everything else in life, you have to play the statistics.  There is always an isolated incident that sticks in your mind while the thousands and thousands of innocuous “we went to McDonalds and didn’t find a severed finger in our shakes” stories seem to get lost.  On the whole, McDonalds runs a pretty clean operation compared to most restaurant chains.  While you might feel like that sets a pretty low bar, the average fast food kitchen is significantly cleaner than the average home kitchen.  Even if you’re something of a clean freak, the vast majority of McDonald’s facilities still have you beat.

And I bet they tidied up a bit for the picture...

One of the things that local governments tend to do extremely well is food inspection.  Restaurants pose an enormous public health risk if they are not kept to the strictest of standards.  Recognizing that the 19-year old high school dropout who runs Sunday afternoon shifts at the local burger joint probably won’t understand the dangers of cross contamination, they subject local establishments to routine inspections and these inspections are, depending upon the municipality and mood of the inspector, anything from very thorough to insanely detailed.

The average home would not pass a municipal restaurant inspection and yet you think nothing of eating at your friend’s house without checking to see if she’s bleaching the rim of each can before opening them.  Your friend is far less likely to sneak pubic hair into your dinner than some anonymous McDonald’s employee, of course, unless you have friends like mine.

 #6) McDonald's Hates Health 

The Claim: “McDonald’s is hell bent on destroying America’s health by filling their menu with sugar-infused-salt.”

The Truth: “People don’t buy the healthy options.”

The most legitimate demonizing of McDonald’s surrounds the lack of nutrition in their meals.  The fact that a company that so heavily markets to children does so with a product that is unhealthy enough to be considered unsafe as a dietary staple does leave as bad a taste in your mouth as their food does.  An examination of the “nutritional facts” sheet offered by McDonald's is something of a testament to childhood obesity.

Realizing that this is the Achilles’ heel of their operation, the corporation makes periodic attempts to counter this claim with a few health-conscious menu items.  They heavily advertise these efforts even knowing in advance that they will fail miserably.  People simply don’t buy the healthy products that fast food companies offer.  They keep salads on the menu and generally try to provide slightly more healthy versions of many of their staple products, but they linger far behind things like the double quarter-pounder with cheese (65% of your recommended daily fat and 95% of your recommended saturated fat).

To be fair, it's healthy if you get the right portion sizes.

It doesn’t make much sense to blame a company for providing its customers with the items they want to buy.  If people suddenly started buying the salads and asking for side orders of carrots and hummus, McDonalds would become the world leader in hummus sales.  The sheer scale and success of their company is plenty of evidence that they are responsive to the wants of their customer.  Their menu is a reflection not of what McDonald’s wants, but of what Americans choose.

That being said, I can mount only the weakest argument against this indictment.  McDonald’s food is absolutely as unhealthy as you think it is.

 #7) McDonald's serves Pseudo-Food 

The Claim: “In an effort to save a penny or two per (menu item), McDonalds substitutes (inedible ingredient) for (edible ingredient).”

The Truth: “People will believe some really silly crap if they find it on the Internet.”

Every few months or so, the Internet is abuzz with some new claim about the sheer horror that lies behind the McDonald’s supply chain.  The claims are far too numerous to catalog here, but the most popular ones seems to revolve around the notion that McDonald’s passes off some really nasty stuff as hamburger.  Worms and cow-eyes are some of the most common culprits.

Their shakes often come under fire as well.  The random lunatics on the Internet will tell you that they were legally required to change the name of their “milkshakes” because they contained no milk.  This is not true and an extremely dangerous rumor to spread to people who may or may not be lactose intolerant.  The most extreme examples of anti-McDonald’s innuendo will claim that there are microscopic foam pellets added to give the shake more substance at a lower cost.

The shocking source of
McDonald's French fries.

As ridiculous as these claims are, they are a lot easier to find on Google than the truth.  They dropped the word “milk” when they stopped using ice cream and started using a prefabricated shake mix.  This is a little odd in that milk is still involved, but it is a perfect example of an attempt at transparency backfiring.

Many of these rumors are fueled by truth.  Decades ago McDonald’s got in some legal hot water for passing their French fries off as vegetarian friendly even though they were being cooked in animal fat.  The notion of the company claiming one thing while selling you another is difficult to shake, but we should keep in mind that they weren’t exactly frying the potatoes in worm-oil.

Many of the anti-McDonald’s advocates like to list the ingredients of certain menu items in hopes that the simple lack of familiarity with some of the items will act as evidence of how bad McDonald’s food really is.  For example, the ingredients of the “special sauce” on a Big Mac are:
Soybean oil, pickle relish [diced pickles, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, vinegar, corn syrup, salt, calcium chloride, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate (preservative), spice extractives, polysorbate 80], distilled vinegar, water, egg yolks, high fructose corn syrup, onion powder, mustard seed, salt, spices, propylene glycol alginate, sodium benzoate (preservative), mustard bran, sugar, garlic powder, vegetable protein (hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat), caramel color, extractives of paprika, soy lecithin, turmeric (color), calcium disodium EDTA (protect flavor).
Things like “propylene glycol alginate” are supposed to just naturally scare the hell out of us because of the sheer number of syllables involved, but no attempt is made to explain exactly what it was.  I find it amusing that if propylene glycol alginate was diluted in a pill form and sold as a kelp extract at health food stores the same people that rail against McDonalds would take it with no thought of evidence for efficacy.

 #8) It’s McDonald’s fault 

The Claim: “McDonalds is making a consistent effort to undermine American health (or economy or whatever).”

The Truth: “We are doing a fine job of that ourselves.”

I find it odd that I should spend 3500 words of my life coming to the defense of a company I hate as much as McDonald’s.  I avoid them like the plague not because of their admittedly awful environmental record or for out of any desire to remain healthy.  I simply don’t like their food.  I agree whole-heartedly that as a nation we should all eat a lot less McDonald’s (and fast food in general) and I recognize the very real danger that comes along with our expanding national waistline.

Many would read this blog as an endorsement of McDonald’s but my goal is more to squelch the misinformation that serves as the modern argument against them.  There is a legitimate danger is demonizing a company for the wrong reasons.  When people discover that there isn’t actually worm meat or cow eyes in their burger, they might start to doubt the entire range of negative “facts” they’ve heard about their favorite source of salt.

But there is a far greater danger in mischaracterizing the problem.  Blaming McDonald’s for our children’s poor health is an excuse.  It offers parents a means to externalize the issue and create a boogieman to hold responsible: If they would just make Happy-Meals out of tofu, my kid would be an Adonis.

The problem is way bigger than McDonald’s and we’re not going to solve it by barring the Golden Arches or watching their dehydrated food fail to mold.  We’ve got to be realistic about the problem to be realistic about the solution.

And sorry if I’ve made anybody out there crave a ten piece McNuggets.

Aaron Davies

By the way, I’ve been in no way compensated by McDonald’s for this piece, though if they want to send me a fat apologist-check, I’d be happy to cash it.


  1. How can you not like McDonald's food?! The new salads are awesome, the new angus burger is amazing(seconded by Steven Novella), and I've yet to meet anyone that doesn't like their fries. This reads more like you want to be cool and you think its 'cool' to bash the #1 fast food rest.

  2. I have to admit that I've not tried their Angus burger or their new salads. As I said, I certainly don't eschew McDonald's because it isn't healthy (I live on a diet of Mountain Dew and M&Ms), I just don't like what I've had from them. I think McDonald's is a taste you have to (a) acquire as a kid or (b) acquire from your kids. I was a Burger King child and have no kids of my own so I've just passed on the whole McDonalds experience.

    As a NYC resident I think it's blasphemy to eat at a fast food restaraunt. When I travel I'll stop at Arby's or Quiznos but when I'm in the city it's all Pizzerias, Diners, Delis and street meat.

    That being said, I can't blame you for being skeptical. Everyone denies eating at McDonald's and they can't all be telling the truth!

  3. Yes! Thank-you, that's a better reply than I was expecting(re: everyone denies yet its always busy) I must admit I too bashed them for years but then I heard or read a critcal/skeptical analysis of the 'junk-food' mentality that people hold of McD.(Skeptoid, maybe?) and it made sense that a burger was a burger. Invited to someone's home for a BBQ serving burgers and you are grateful. Now McD's burgers are 100% ground chuck, buns are real bread, lettuce is lettuce and tomatoes are tomatoes, so why is eating a BBQ burger considered a good meal and McD's is junk? The salads are real lettuce with the option of grilled chicken. Not saying McD's is the healthiest choice but its not all garbage! Great blog by the way.