McDonalds Nutrition: Is What You Hear Really True?

Boy with McDonalds

In many ways, our society is becoming increasingly focused on healthy food and the ways that the right food can help to promote health and well-being. The movement is fantastic and with the current obesity epidemic, such a focus has never been more relevant.

One outcome of this movement has been increased criticism of places like McDonalds, along with the people that frequent them.

Now, don’t get me wrong, regularly eating at fast food restaurants isn’t a good idea. Likewise, the food that they have to offer certainly isn’t going to do your health any good.

But, how bad is it really? Do the issues with McDonalds nutrition mean that people should swear off the company’s food entirely?

Or, is McDonalds still okay to eat some of the time – as long as you are careful about how often you eat it?

The aim of this post is to answer those questions and provide detailed insight into the debate about McDonalds and McDonalds nutrition.

After all, a lot of the opinions out there are mostly based on hype or misleading information – and that’s never a good approach for decision-making.

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McDonalds Nutrition and Health

McDonalds has a wide menu that’s ever-changing.

I’m not even going to attempt to cover their whole menu here – that would be completely unrealistic.

Instead, I’m going to focus on some of the more common meal choices.

Most of the patterns that you see with these products also apply across the whole range at McDonalds.

What about a combo?

Let’s say you got a medium Big Mac combo, so a Big Mac burger, medium fries and a medium coke. As combos go, that’s on the small size. I know some people who could eat that and be satisfied, but others might need at least a large combo to get enough to eat. Others might add on an extra cheeseburger or two as well.

Yet, with just that medium combo and nothing else, the calorie count is 1,080 calories. Let me put that in context.

Big Mac Burger

The amount of calories a person should be eating varies depending on a range of factors. But, general estimates suggest that women between 19 and 30 need around 2,000 calories a day and men of the same age need around 2,400 calories a day.

Now, that’s to maintain your current weight.

If you wanted to lose weight, you might be trying to consume 1,500 calories or less (again, it depends on your circumstances). 

For that matter, many people try to eat less than 1,200 or 1,000 calories per day for weight loss. ​

But, at 1,080 calories, that combo from McDonalds represents around half of the daily requirements for both men and women.

If you’re lucky, a single combo at McDonalds would make up one of your three meals.

Honestly though, the meals aren’t all that filling – so people often find they need extra snacks to get them through to the next meal.

At the same time, I also want to note that the combo is pretty high in sodium, at 1,165 mg of sodium.

There is some debate about whether we need to be very worried about our sodium intake or not. But regardless, that level of sodium is pretty high, especially as the general guidelines are 2,300 mg per day and 1,500 mg per day for at-risk groups (1).

So, what does all of this mean?

Well, a McDonalds meal isn’t going to blow all of your calories for the day – although that would depend a little bit on precisely what you end up eating in a meal.

But regardless, you would probably end up going over your daily calories (and sodium intake) once you factor in your other meals for the day.

This isn’t a major issue if you’re careful with your calorie consumption and only eat McDonalds rarely.

However, this data makes it easy to see how you could quickly gain weight from McDonalds.

With that in mind, if you are health-conscious and planning a trip to McDonalds, it may be worth planning your other meals accordingly. For example, you could skip breakfast if you were going there for lunch​

Nutrition on the Website

Like other companies, McDonalds does offer its nutritional information on the website. This includes information under the products themselves and a separate pdf with information about all of the products on it.

But, I noticed something a little concerning when I looked at this information. Look at the image below, which is the nutritional summary for one of their salads:

McDonalds Salad

At 120 calories, this salad sounds fairly healthy, doesn’t it? (well… as long as you ignore the sodium, yikes!).

But, that’s not the calorie count. That’s just the number of calories from fat. The actual amount of calories for the salad is 310, which is quite a lot higher.

It isn’t hard to find the real calorie information, you just have to click on the ‘learn more and customize’ link and then expand the nutritional information.

But, if you were browsing the menu and trying to figure out what to eat, you probably wouldn’t go through all of that. You would probably just assume that 120 calories is the calorie count for the salad.

After all, it’s unusual to find a product that separates out the calories from fat like that.

I might be missing something, but I can’t think of a legitimate reason for giving the information like that. The only reason seems to be to mislead consumers.

McDonalds does offer nutritional information on their site and this is useful but it's important to note that some of that information is a little misleading

What About the Healthier Options?

Consumers have been increasingly interested in healthy food and that demand has had some impacts on McDonalds’ menu.

For example, if you look on their website, you’ll notice a section that contains foods that are under 400 calories.

This section includes some salads as well as some breakfast items and some of their smaller burgers. If you were trying to eat as healthy as possible at McDonalds, you’d probably turn to the salads.

The chain has two main salads. One is a bacon and ranch salad (with some variations in the chicken you get) and the other is a southwest salad (with or without chicken). In both cases, the salads do have healthy ingredients, including lettuce, spinach and kale.

McDonalds salads

But, they also come with a creamy dressing and cheese, and one of them also comes with bacon. Those things bring up the calorie count pretty quickly.

The salads are still healthier than many other things on the entire menu – but they’re certainly not as healthy as you might assume. If you want a healthy option, then you should probably go with the side salad and pick a healthy dressing with it.

Beyond the salads, there are very few things on that ‘under 400 calorie’ menu that are actually healthy. I mean, there’s some oatmeal (although it contains cream and brown sugar, so it’s not that great) and apple slices, but that’s pretty much it.

Everything else just gets on the list because of the serving size. For example, a basic hamburger and cheeseburger make it onto that menu, as do a six pack of chicken McNuggets and a sausage burrito.

All of those items are tiny. Yeah, getting something to eat for under 400 calories is nice, but is one cheeseburger really going to fill you?

Realistically, eating healthy at McDonalds is a pretty misleading concept. There are options on the menu that are healthier than others but regardless of what you choose, you should be viewing McDonalds as a very rare treat.

McDonalds does have some healthier items on its menu but many of these aren't as healthy as they seem to be. In fact, many items end up being relatively low in calories simply because their portion size is small (like a basic hamburger)

Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup

Despite the fact that we’re facing an obesity epidemic, sugar still has a bad habit of turning up in food where it really isn’t needed.

One example of this is bread. For example, the buns from McDonalds burgers contain high fructose corn syrup. This is an artificial form of sugar which has higher fructose content than regular sugar. This type of sugar is commonly used in processed food because it tends to be less expensive to manufacture.

Big Mac bun

However, the catch is that high fructose corn syrup can actually be more damaging than sugar because of the way that fructose is treated in the body.

Nevertheless, I do want to point out that this practice isn’t restricted to McDonalds.

The inclusion of sugar or high fructose corn syrup has become fairly common in a wide range of foods, particularly processed foods. At the same time, a lot of the bread that you buy from grocery stores will also have high fructose corn syrup as a key ingredient. Personally, I don’t understand the approach, especially as bread tastes much better without the added sugar.

With this in mind, McDonalds certainly isn’t unusual in its use of sugar but this may be a key reason to avoid their food – especially if you are trying to cut back your sugar intake.

Like many American foods, McDonalds meals often contain hidden sugar and high fructose corn syrup, especially in their bread buns

Differences in Processing

One interesting thing to note about McDonalds food is that the amount of processing (and additives) can differ substantially. A good example of this comes from chicken.

In particular, take a look at the ingredients list for chicken nuggets:

Chicken nuggets

There is a huge amount of additives in this list and relatively few whole food ingredients. Now, if you’ve ever had chicken nuggets from McDonalds, this might not come as a surprise. After all, those nuggets don’t have the taste or the texture of normal chicken. In fact, if it wasn’t for the name, you might not even realize that you were eating chicken.

In contrast, this is the ingredients label for the chicken in an Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich:

Artisan Chicken Filet

The first thing to note here is that there are a lot fewer ingredients. Additionally, most of the ingredients included are ‘real’ food. For example, there is honey, onion powder and garlic powder in there. All-in-all, there is a lot less processing in this chicken.

Realistically, this pattern is a fairly common one across McDonalds and across other fast food restaurants. This means that if you want a healthier meal then you’ll also have to pay more. For example, the burger I was talking about costs around $4.50 for the burger alone, while you could get 20 chicken nuggets for a similar price.

The advantages of this burger aren't just the chicken either. Instead, this is one of the healthier products from McDonalds, as the nutritional information shows:

Burger calories

380 calories for a burger is actually relatively low, at least when you compare it to other examples of McDonalds nutrition (the calorie count is in the left-most column).

McDonalds burgers

Now, I know the basic hamburger and cheeseburger are lower in calories but they also tend to be extremely unsatisfying. Realistically, the chicken burger we’re talking about is larger and would tend to be considerably more satisfying. In fact, it has 37 g of protein, compared to 12 g and 15 g in the hamburger and cheeseburger, respectively, and this is a key reason why the chicken burger would be more filling.

There is considerable processing in the food from McDonalds but this does vary somewhat based on what items you pick. Often, the more expensive menu items will have less processing and fewer additives

McDonalds Nutrition, Processing and Additives

Without a doubt, McDonalds food is heavily processed and contains a lot of additives. As I’ve shown, there is some variation depending on the specific food that you buy but even the healthiest options have a lot of additives that you simply don’t need.

One indication of this is simply the bread that they use. For example, this is the ingredients list for the buns used on a Big Mac:

Big Mac

The ingredients list that I showed earlier for chicken nuggets is another example. In fact, even their smoothies contain some additives.

Strawberry Banana smoothie

In addition to the additives, there is also the issue that McDonalds food has been heavily processed. In some cases, (like chicken nuggets) the finished product bears little resemblance to the original food.

These issues certainly mean that the food McDonalds offers isn’t especially healthy.

In most cases, there is significant research out there that proves these compounds are safe and many have been widely used in the food supply for many years.

Yet despite this, most studies into specific additives tend to focus on short-term outcomes only (partly because long-term studies are challenging to fund and to conduct). Likewise, proving a given compound causes harm once it is out in the food supply is difficult. After all, there are so many products out there that use a lot of additives and potential symptoms or side effects from additives could be subtle.

There are still processes in place to help find additives that may be detrimental to health, which is why you sometimes see the specific additives used change over time. Nevertheless, it does still make sense to limit your additive intake wherever possible.

One other related aspect to mention is that many the foods at McDonalds are cooked with unhealthy fats, such as safflower oil. While fat itself is not as bad as most people assume, some fats are certainly worse than others.

This issue is likely to be especially significant for the fries that McDonalds sells, as these are deep fried and have a lot of surface area.

So, what does this mean for McDonalds nutrition and McDonalds as a whole?

McDonalds Fries

Well, the additives certainly aren’t ideal for health, regardless of whether they have long-term health effects.

However, by the same token, they aren’t likely to have significant impacts on health, especially if you are consuming McDonalds food on an irregular basis.

A similar thing is true for fats.

Even though we know that some fats are bad for health, this is mostly connected with consumption levels and probability. So, eating some bad fat occasionally probably won’t do you much harm but if this is something that you’re eating regularly then it is probably time to re-examine your diet.

Personally, I would never recommend eating McDonalds food frequently, partly because of the additives and partly because you aren’t getting much nutrition for the calories that you are consuming.

But, at the same time, there is no evidence that people need to swear off McDonalds or fast food entirely.

Additives are a major issue in McDonalds food. While there is little research that offers solid evidence that any of these can harm people, it's still worth trying not to have these additives too often

Specific McDonalds Food Choices

Now, there is no doubt that McDonalds has a large menu and precisely what they offer varies over time and also from one location to another. With that in mind, I’m certainly not going to be able to cover all of the products that McDonalds offers in this post.

However, there are some specific products that I do want to talk about, partly because they tend to be misleading.

On a side note, I do want to point out that nutritional information does vary somewhat. This is particularly true from one country to the next, as countries vary in their laws and requirements, for food and for labeling, as well as simply in what is popular. As such, any of my discussions on nutrition will focus on American versions of the products.

McDonalds Fruit Smoothies

Right now, smoothies have become a popular health product. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are good reasons for this. In particular, smoothies can be a powerful way to get a range of healthy plant-based compounds, and they can also be a good choice for protein if you make one with protein powder as an ingredient.

McDonalds Smoothie

In fact, smoothies are even used for weight loss on a regular basis – because some smoothies can be used as a replacement for meals. The weight loss smoothie recipes from Craft Smoothie are one example of this pattern. 

But, at the same time, smoothies can be an issue. A key reason for this is that they are a form of liquid nutrition.

Now, it is extremely easy to consume calories in the liquid form and our bodies tend to process them in different ways. In particular, calories from drinks tend to have little effect on our hunger and this makes it extremely easy to consume too much.

At the same time, fruit-based smoothies are never quite as healthy as they appear. Instead, their very nature means that these products are loaded with sugar.

For the most part, this is natural sugar rather than sugar that has been added. Nevertheless, both types of sugar can have negative impacts on health, contributing to inflammation, not to mention weight gain.

Additionally, in the case of McDonalds, the company does also add sugar into their smoothies. That approach seems redundant as a fruit smoothie should be sweet enough without the need for extra sugar.

Added sugar

This pattern means that, without a doubt, the smoothies at McDonalds aren’t as healthy as people like to think.

For example, the smallest size (12 fl oz) of their Strawberry Banana smoothie has the following nutrition breakdown:

Smoothie nutrition

Likewise, their 16 fl oz version contains 240 calories and their largest size (22 fl oz) has 330 calories. In fact, a small Coca-Cola from McDonalds contains 170 calories, so you’re ending up with a drink that contains slightly more calories than a similar-sized cup of soda.

Now, this amount of calories and sugar might not be a huge issue for a treat and I would still argue that there are more benefits from a fruit-based smoothie than from a glass of soda. Nevertheless, the sugar and calorie content of the drink means that it should be viewed as a treat, not as a health food.

Unfortunately, it is far too common to find people who view these as healthy.

The fruit smoothies from McDonalds are one example of how products can look healthier than they actually are. While you do get some nutrition from fruit, the smoothies actually end up being higher in sugar than a similar-sized cup of soda, which is a concerning pattern

French Fries

McDonalds Fries Container

Without a doubt, one of the most common food choices at McDonalds is the fries. This is partly because they are a side with pretty much any meal but even so, they’re pretty popular in their own right.

Now, the fries from McDonalds are a bit interesting, because they are thinner than the fries from most other fast food brands. This helps to make them popular but it isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Realistically, if you are going to eat any type of chips, then thicker is better. The thickness of fries influences the ratio of oil to potato, as thinner fries have a larger surface area for their volume.

Nutritionally, there is nothing good about fries at all. The process of deep frying significantly alters the chemical composition of potatoes, which means that the French fries you eat barely resemble potatoes at all. This issue is even worse for the French fries that you find at McDonalds, as their thinness means that almost all of the product is affected by the frying process.

There are other issues with French fries as well.

For one thing, they tend to be pretty addictive and people often end up eating far more than they intend. Much of this may come from the fat and refined carbohydrates that the fries offer (2), although the salt may also be a culprit.

At the same time, the fries are high in calories and in fat. For example, this is the nutritional breakdown from a small container of fries:

Calories in fries

That alone is concerning but, to make matters worse, most people don’t just have a small container of fries. Instead, most of the time, people end up with a medium or a large instead, with the large being most common. And, the nutritional information for that size looks like this:

Calories in large fries

That’s a huge amount of calories – especially when you remember that fries aren’t especially filling and that they’re not even the main part of your meal. To make matters even worse, people often end up eating ketchup with their fries, which just adds on additional calories.

Finally, for anyone curious, this is the ingredients list for the fries that McDonalds offers:

French fries ingredients

As you can see, they are pretty artificial in nature and even contain hydrogenated oil, which is damaging for health (3).

There is also controversy surrounding the ingredient sodium acid pyrophosphate. This is a coloring agent and in the case of fries from McDonalds, it appears to be used to maintain the light color of the fries after cooking.

In general, this product is considered safe and it is also extensively used, especially for seafood and in baking. The prevalence of the compound means that it is probably safe for health. In fact, some research suggests that sodium acid pyrophosphate may even be healthy in some ways as it can potentially reduce the levels of acrylamide in fries (4).

However, it is important to note that this compound does contain phosphorous and too much phosphorus in your diet can have negative impacts on health (5).

As such, this is something to keep in mind if you eat fast food frequently.

At the same time, it’s also worth noting that the ingredients list means that the fries from McDonalds are not gluten free or vegan.

The thin nature of the French fries from McDonalds may make them especially appealing but this is also one reason why the fries are so unhealthy

Myths and Truths About McDonalds

There are a lot of horror stories surrounding McDonalds.

Without a doubt, McDonalds food is unhealthy.

After all, you’re dealing with food that is pretty high in fat, calories and sodium. To make matters worse, their food has few nutrients and isn’t especially filling. But, just how bad is it? Well, there are a few concerns that stand out.

Pink Slime

McDonalds has faced some major problems with its image because of ‘pink slime’. The image below is a still from a video that has been circulating for quite some time, mostly associated with McDonalds.

The infamous 'pink slime'

Personally, I’ve heard some people claim that the image is what will eventually end up as chicken nuggets, while others claim that it is for hamburger patties.

Scientifically, the ‘pink slime’ is fatty beef residue which has been treated with ammonium hydroxide (which the industry calls a meat quality enhancer). Without a doubt, the process sounds horrible, yet the practice was a standard in the industry for many years. Essentially, the ‘pink slime’ made up a key component of hamburger patties.

For McDonalds, the company stopped using the process in around 2011 (6).

Despite how common this concept and image is, McDonalds doesn't actually use 'pink slime' in its chicken nuggets or hamburgers

Appearance versus Reality

If you’ve ever had McDonalds, then you’ll know that their marketing is a very rough approximation of the actual food that you end up with. Often, you will find that the burger you buy looks a lot smaller and much less fresh than what you see in the marketing images.

This pattern can be a bit depressing when you first buy a McDonalds burger but honestly, it is the standard for the industry.

To varying degrees, you will see the same pattern at any fast food store or even at some restaurants that have pictures on their menus. You even see the pattern in food blogs, where their photos always seem to look better than your finished product.

This happens because people put a lot of time and effort into food photography to make the food look as good as possible.

This includes things like carefully arranging ingredients so they look perfect and retouching with photoshop. In fact, McDonalds addressed that topic in a video, which shows the process.

That video is one of a number of videos that the company uses to try and improve their overall image. As such, it is a little bit marketing heavy and the people in the video almost entirely ignore how misleading the practice is. Nevertheless, the video is a good way to see why McDonalds food ends up looking so much better in the images.

Additionally, when you actually get McDonalds food in a restaurant, it has often been put together in a hurry and the ingredients may no longer look their best. In contrast, the company spends a lot of time making one single burger look perfect for their marketing.

In the video, the representative also noted that the boxes McDonalds burgers come in trap steam which contracts the burger, making it smaller, which is where the size difference comes from.

As frustrating as this pattern is, I don’t think it’s something we can really blame McDonalds for. As I said before, the pattern is extremely common across every company that photographs food and it happens with other types of marketing too.

The McDonalds food you buy does look different than the images. However, this is just basic marketing and it's a practice that many companies do. While it may be frustrating, it is unrealistic to ever expect food to look exactly like the promotional material

McDonalds Food Won’t Spoil

Perhaps the most famous controversy that surrounds McDonalds is that the food simply doesn’t seem to spoil. From time-to-time, you might hear stories about this idea, such as the way a 12-year-old burger still looks roughly the same as one that you just bought.

McDonalds Food Won't Spoil

There are even blog posts that you can find that document the process, such as this one here from Refinery 29.

The most common answer to that pattern is that McDonalds pumps its burgers full of preservatives. Needless to say, this is enough to stop many people from actually eating McDonalds.

With all of the posts and evidence out there, it’s pretty clear that the burgers from McDonalds really don’t rot and the same seems to be true for their fries.

The thing is… this doesn’t actually have much to do with the food itself.

A really interesting post at Serious Eats did an experiment on this topic, looking at what causes the pattern and whether it is just limited to McDonalds burgers (you can find the full post here).

The experiment itself was fascinating, with the author using a number of different variations and monitored the burgers for 25 days.

The biggest outcome was that the burgers from McDonalds didn’t grow mold or rot over the course of the experiment – but neither did homemade burgers that were the same size and shape.

This actually makes a lot of sense.

One thing that bacteria needs to grow is moisture. Small burgers tend to dehydrate fairly quickly, which means the water is gone before bacteria has the chance to grow. In fact, if you look at images of McDonalds burgers that are months old, you’ll notice that they do look dehydrated.

This suggests that the pattern is due to size. In fact, you’ll notice that all of the images online for burgers that have lasted months are the small burgers that McDonalds sells. Likewise, fries are very thin so they would dehydrate quickly.

Dehydrated burgers

As part of the article, the author also looked at larger burgers. Specifically, he looked at a Quarter Pounder from McDonalds and a burger of the same size that he made. In this case, there was some mold in both the homemade burger and the one from McDonalds.

The final part of the author’s experiment involved the same approach but putting the burgers in plastic bags. Doing this traps in the moisture, preventing the same level of dehydration. Sure enough, the homemade burger and the burger from McDonalds both developed extensive amounts of mold and eventually started rotting.

The end result of all the experiments is that a plain McDonalds burger will not rot because it dehydrates before it gets the chance. There isn’t anything especially unusual about that process and it certainly doesn’t imply that the burgers contain dangerous preservatives.

In fact, the experiment I talked about found almost identical patterns for the McDonalds burgers and for homemade burgers, so there really isn’t anything to be concerned about.

Realistically, you will find a similar pattern with a lot of different foods. After all, it’s a basic fact of life that some moisture is needed for decomposition.

What about the fries?

Even though the experiment didn’t cover fries, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t grow mold either. For one thing, McDonalds does have incredibly thin fries. Additionally, those fries are covered with a large amount of salt, which is a natural preservative. Finally, they have fairly low water content to start off with.

All of those factors would strongly limit the growth of bacteria, so it shouldn’t actually be a surprise that the fries from McDonalds don’t go moldy (7).

On the topic of fries, there is actually an image floating around of fries online, which compares McDonalds fries to KFC fries after about 3 years.

McDonalds and KFC fries

(Credit: Imgur/atopiary)

In this case, there is almost no information about what the various conditions were and there isn’t even any information that the images are legitimate. However, I would still guess that the lack of mold in the McDonalds fries is a natural pattern.

For one thing, the fries are McDonalds are much thinner than the ones at KFC, which is one reason why they are so popular. That difference in thickness would have a major impact on the likelihood of the fries to develop mold, so it isn’t too surprising that the KFC fries grow mold while the McDonalds ones don’t.

But, what about moisture?

The argument before was that mold needs moisture to grow. Dehydration happens quickly in the open air but in jars, that moisture is trapped. So, shouldn’t there be some mold?

Well, there is.

There are actually two images of these fries, one of the front, one of the back. The front one is the version that gets shared the most – probably because it’s the most compelling. But, here’s the other image:

Fries comparison

(Credit: Imgur/atopiary)

There are two interesting things about this image. The first is that there is some mold on the McDonalds fries but only the ones at the back. Incidentally, the back is where the moisture is, so that pattern isn’t surprising.

The other thing is that there is more moisture in the McDonalds jar than the KFC one.

To me, this suggests that the KFC fries absorbed more moisture, contributing to their mold. My best guess would be that the thinness of the McDonalds fries means that they absorb less moisture, which, in turn, is why there is less mold on those fries.

So again, the pattern seems to come down to science, not preservatives.

If nothing else, the pattern is certainly not as clear as the photographer implies.

The idea that McDonalds food won't spoil is incredibly misleading. For one thing, this is only true for a select few items on their menu. Additionally, this pattern is connected to the time involved in dehydration versus bacterial growth - rather than any additives that McDonalds puts in their food

Concerning Ingredients

As a whole, society is becoming much more interested in what actually goes in our foods. Because of this, there has been an increased focus on ingredients that might be bad for health.

Over time, McDonalds has been subject to a significant amount of negative press about their products.

Now, I will be the first to admit that McDonalds certainly isn’t healthy. At the end of the day, their food offers little nutritional value and is high in calories, fat and sodium. Plus, it doesn’t tend to be particularly filling and is heavily processed, which only makes matters worse.

McDonalds Combo

Clearly, this means that McDonalds isn’t particularly healthy and even their best products should be viewed as a treat rather than a source of nutrients.

But, with all of the focus on McDonalds nutrition, is the food really as bad as people claim? Or, is the nutrition on par with other heavily processed food?

Earlier on, I mentioned one ingredient that people are sometimes concerned with, which is sodium acid pyrophosphate. Without a doubt, this compound is synthetic and companies have even got in trouble for using the compound in food marketed as ‘all natural’ (8). However, the artificial nature of the ingredient doesn’t make it unhealthy.

Indeed, there seems to be little evidence that the ingredient would actually cause harm to health.

Another ingredient that is under debate is soy lecithin. This is another product that is prevalent in a wide range of processed food, including the food that McDonalds offers.

For the most part, controversy around this product seems to be focused on the debate around soy itself. In particular, most of the soy in the United States has been genetically modified to some degree and this is a key reason why people avoid it (9).

Yet, soy lecithin goes through substantial processing and one outcome of this is that it contains very little DNA at the end of that, along with little soy protein. As such, any potential negative impacts of GMOs aren’t really going to be true for soy lecithin (10). Likewise, allergies to soy are typically connected to soy protein but research suggests that the composition of soy lecithin means that it isn’t likely to cause such allergies (11,12).

Another interesting thing about McDonalds nutrition is the use of bread conditioners.

This topic became major news a year or two back, when it was found that subway made use of a chemical in the bread that is also used in the production of yoga mats (13). The compound was one example of a bread conditioner and it is a compound that is actually banned in Europe. In this particular case, Subway decided to remove the ingredient from their products, also saying that they had begun to do so long before the controversy began (14).

McDonalds also uses bread conditioners, although they do not appear to use azodicarbonamide, which was the compound at the center of the debate.

For the most part, the use of bread conditioners is fairly common in processed food. In some ways, this is even necessary. Certainly, it is possible to make bread without these components but such bread is unlikely to meet the needs of restaurants and fast food stores.

It also seems that how you approach compounds like these comes down to personal preference.

The healthiest, and safest, approach is to simply avoid processed food as much as possible and instead focus on whole and healthy food. Not only is this better for your health but it can also make weight loss easier.

Big Mac

But, despite this, there is little evidence that these compounds majorly damage health.

The case of azodicarbonamide is one major example of this.

In particular, most of the campaign against this compound was based on the concept that it is used in yoga mats (and other non-food uses). And yes, that’s true. But, it isn’t unusual for chemical compounds to have a wide range of different uses, including both food and non-food uses. Likewise, the fact that the compound was used for yoga mats doesn’t inherently make it unsafe.

It's also worth noting that azodicarbonamide is only really dangerous if it is inhaled. That applies to people in the manufacturing process, who could potentially inhale the raw material (15).

However, you aren't going to inhale anything from a cooked burger. 

For that matter, azodicarbonamide doesn't actually end up in the finished product at all.

Instead, it is broken down into a different compound (called biurea), which is safe and leaves the body easily. And, azodicarbonamide was used in extremely small quantities in the first place (16).

All of this information supports ​the fact that azodicarbonamide as a bread conditioner was never actually dangerous for health - and neither are other bread conditioners for that matter. 

Regardless, that compound isn’t used much anymore – mainly because of the controversy that now surrounds it.

Certainly, McDonalds does rely on a considerable number of additives and concerning ingredients but the evidence available does suggest that these are safe. Likewise, the additives used tend to be common across the fast food industry and are also used in other processed foods

Should You Avoid McDonalds Entirely?

Throughout this post, I’ve painted a pretty dim image of McDonalds, although you were probably already familiar with many of my points. However, I’ve also shown that some of the worst myths about McDonalds simply aren’t true.

In fact, a lot of the rhetoric against McDonalds is based on hype and assumptions rather than actual evidence. Those images of fries and burgers not spoiling is one example of this. I mean, people look at images like the one below and assume that there is something majorly wrong with the ingredients in the fries.

McDonalds and KFC fries

(Credit: Imgur/atopiary)

Yet, the pattern makes complete sense if you consider the science behind food spoiling.

Now, without a doubt, McDonalds nutrition isn’t great and the food isn’t healthy. So, does this mean that you should never go back to McDonalds?

Honestly, no.

For one thing, most of the bad things about McDonalds apply to pretty much any fast food place you can think of and also to a lot of the processed foods that you eat at home.

Now, without a doubt, processed foods are horrible for your health, especially when you consume them in large quantities. After all, processed food acts as a key source for a lot of sugar and salt and you’ll often find that it manages to have a large amount of fat and calories as well. In many cases, processed food is also pretty low in protein, so you end up getting hungry again fairly quickly.

All of those factors mean that processed food, including McDonalds, is a driving factor in the current obesity crisis.

Because of this, there is a growing focus on eating whole and healthy foods, especially meals that you cook for yourself. For many people, this emphasis includes following a low carb diet and looking for healthy sources of fat and calories.

We’re also learning more about the concept of functional food, which focuses on the idea that the food we eat can play a key role on our risk of developing disease and on our health in general.

All of this evidence suggests that processed food should be a very small part of our diet, if we eat it at all.

Good versus bad food

But, unless you are on a ketogenic diet or a very strict diet (like Paleo or veganism), there’s no reason why you can’t have McDonalds as a treat now and again. That’s even true if you are trying to lose weight.

In general, McDonalds food is simply another example of heavily processed food. It’s certainly high in fat, sugar and calories, not to mention additives – but there isn’t anything that makes it worse than the countless other examples of takeout and processed food.

At the end of the day, when it comes to weight loss and health, I advocate the idea of finding a diet and lifestyle that works for your needs. For some people, that might be a low carb diet or intermittent fasting, while for other people the approach may look completely different.

Likewise, some people do well on a strict diet, while others find that they need flexibility to even have a chance of following a diet in the long-term.

So, if you really do love McDonalds food, the answer may not be to cut it out of your diet entirely. Instead, you might choose to have it as a rare treat. One way of doing this is to simply be aware of the calories that your meal contains.

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Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use. 

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What do you think about McDonalds? Is it something you love, a treat food or something you avoid entirely?

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