The true ingredients in McDonald's fries

Updated May 11, 2017

There's no doubt that McDonald's has a high stake in the British fast food market, becoming ever-more popular since its arrival to the UK in the 1970s. The first branch of the famous US fast food chain opened in Woolwich, south London in 1974.

It's about the only time the word "fries" will get used in place of "chips" in British folk's vocabulary.

So, of course, when asked "do you want fries with that?" Does the server behind the cash register even need to ask?

Let's face it, no meal at McDonald's is complete without an order of its famous thin-cut frittered chips. And to think, the world-famous french fries were added to the menu only as an afterthought. They replaced plain old potato chips in 1949, nine years after the first-ever McDonald's opened its doors for business in California.

The assumption is that the famous fried are terrible for you, right? Before you turn your eyes away from the screen so that we don't ruin yet another delicious food for you forever, hear this: There are many fast food menu items that are far worse for your health (which will be mentioned later in this piece).

THE SUSPECT: McDonald's French Fries Large 140g (5.4 oz)

THE DETECTIVE: Dr. Christopher Ochner (a research associate at New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center) is very familiar with the McDonald's menu. A few years ago, Ochner -- who holds a doctorate of clinical psychology -- conducted his own “Super Size Me”-type diet experiment: Every day for two months he ate one meal at the fast food restaurant as part of a study. His findings have yet to be published.

NUTRITION LABEL: 500 calories, 25 grams (1 oz ) fat, 63 grams (2½ oz) carbs, 350 milligrams sodium, 6 grams (0.2 oz) fibre, 6 (0.2 oz) grams protein

LISTED INGREDIENTS: Potatoes, vegetable oil (canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavour [wheat and milk derivatives]*, citric acid [preservative]), dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate (to maintain colour), salt and dimethylpolysiloxane. The oil used for frying also mentions tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ).

*Natural beef flavour contains hydrolysed wheat and hydrolysed milk as starting ingredients.

Shockingly enough, these fries are not vegetarian.

Dr. Christopher Ochner, New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center research associate


VEGETABLE OIL (BLEND): To make french fries, you have to deep-fry some potatoes, an otherwise healthy carbohydrate, in something fatty and greasy. McDonald's spuds get dunked in an oil bath twice. According to Ochner, the manufacturers cut and boil them and possibly fry them once before freezing them and shipping them to restaurants, where they are fried again. Here's what goes into that piping hot potato bath:

a) Canola oil: This commonly used cooking oil is generally considered “good for you” when compared to others in its category, but it's still loaded with calories and therefore will make you gain weight if you consume too much of it. It's hard to tell how much of this particular oil is used versus the less healthy and even fattier options. Because canola oil is a little pricier, Ochner speculates that McDonald's probably uses less of the good stuff and more of the others, like corn oil and soybean oil.

b) Hydrogenated soybean oil: When regular soybean oil goes through a hydrogenation process, its unsaturated fats become saturated fat, which in turn makes it easier to cook with and helps boost preservation. The downside is the new fat also becomes a trans fat, which has been strongly linked to heart disease. You'd think that the recent nationwide mandatory call for removal of trans fats in all foods would have forced McDonald's to rethink its recipe. Nope. Ochner says that the FDA's definition of “zero trans fat per serving” means less than 1 gram per tablespoon, and that McDonald's found its loophole and still continues to serve a relatively low amount of trans fat in its fries.

c) Natural beef flavour: Some 50 years ago, McDonald's cooked its fries in beef fat. When it switched over to a vegetable oil blend, it didn't want the fries to lose their famous flavour, so they opted to add natural beef flavour to the blend. Hydrolysed wheat and hydrolysed milk are used as starting ingredients of the flavouring. Shockingly enough, these fries are not vegetarian. In 2002, McDonald's paid £7 million to members of a vegetarian Hindu community who had sued the chain for failing to disclose how the food was prepared.

d) Citric acid: This common preservative is considered safe to ingest, but there's something disturbing about how it works. If you remember Morgan Spurlock's alarming 2004 documentary “Super Size Me,” you will recall how McDonald's fries can last for months without breaking down at all, continuing to look like you bought them yesterday.

e) TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone): This super potent preservative, found in lots of foods, is what might be helping citric acid keep long-dead fries from becoming zombies. Though it's also said to be safe, animal studies have linked it to stomach ulcers and damage to DNA.

DEXTROSE: Another word for sugar, this is third ingredient, following potatoes and oil, in McDonald's fries. Now why would such a savoury food need a dash of sweetness? Well, it's simple: It makes it taste better and it also increases addiction and cravings. New research shows that the body may convert the sugar found in foods into body fat more easily than it can convert fat found in foods into body fat. So sugar may be worse for you than fat.

SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE: This preservative is the reason McDonald's fries will retain a fresh-looking golden brown colour rather than turn black when placed in a jar for two months. Yuck. This same ingredient is often found in commercially prepared cake, pudding, waffle, pancake and muffin mixes, and it is also added to refrigerated dough products, flavoured milk, cured meats, potato products and canned fish.

DIMETHYLPOLYSILOXANE: What's an anti-foaming agent doing in your fries? Bizarrely enough, this silicone serves a purpose: McDonald's manufacturers likely add some to the water when boiling the potatoes before frying and freezing them for shipment. This probably helps speed up the process (no foam spilling over) and cuts back on cleanup afterward. There's no proof that ingesting this stuff is harmful, but why would you want to?

THE VERDICT: It all sounds pretty questionable, right? Despite all the potentially hazardous ingredients hidden in these fries, Ochner says that the saturated fat in foods like this is the most dangerous part for your overall health. However, at McDonald's (and other fast food restaurants), there are many items on the menu that are worse for you than french fries, based on calorie and fat content alone. Some examples to avoid: McDonald’s Angus Bacon & Cheese, which has 820 calories and 41 grams (1.5 oz) of fat; KFC’s Chicken Pot Pie, which has 790 calories and 45 grams (1.6 oz) of fat and the famous Burger King Double Whopper, which has 830 calories and 50 grams (1.7 oz) of fat.

THE SENTENCE: McDonald's french fries contain questionable ingredients, a high amount of fat content, and a minimal amount of nutrition (protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants). That said, we do understand that some of you might still find the siren song of "Do you want fries with that?" very tempting. Our hope is that this information may nudge you to eat them less often, or perhaps at least convince you to choose the smaller portion of fries. Just by ordering the small versus the large fries, you'll avoid 270 calories, 14 grams (0.5 oz) of fat, 2 grams (0.7 oz) of saturated fat and 34 grams (1.2 oz) of carbs.

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About the Author

Cristina Goyanes is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor, specializing in wellness, fitness, sports and travel. She is a contributor to national men's and women's lifestyle publications and websites.