Ask just about anybody how to make French fries, and they’ll probably give you something approximating the correct answer: You deep-fry potatoes in oil, and add some salt. Three ingredients, and that’s it, right? Well, head on over to the ingredients listing for McDonald’s fries and here’s what you’ll find:
Ingredients: Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Natural Beef Flavor [Wheat and Milk Derivatives]*, Citric Acid [Preservative]), Dextrose, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate (Maintain Color), Salt.
Prepared in Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil) with TBHQ and Citric Acid to preserve freshness of the oil and Dimethylpolysiloxane to reduce oil splatter when cooking.
CONTAINS: WHEAT AND MILK.
*Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients.”
This is a lot to unpack. We’ll start at the beginning. First come potatoes, which are coated in a combination of oils (including hydrogenated soybean oil, which provides shelf stability but also contains trans fat), with some “natural beef flavor” and citric acid mixed in. Then they’re sprinkled with some salt, dextrose (sugar), and sodium acid pyrophosphate, one of the main ingredients in some varieties of baking powder, which keeps the potatoes from turning brown.
They’re fried in a similar combination of oils, along with TBHQ, also known as tertiary butylhydroquinone, and citric acid (both preservatives); and dimethylpolysiloxane, an antifoaming agent that prevents oil from splattering.
So, your McDonald’s fries may not be as pristine as you thought they were. But hey, if not for all those chemicals, they might not last so long, they might turn brown, and the oil might splatter! As for that “natural beef flavor,” that was added in when the company stopped frying its fries in beef fat. Other than the fact that it contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk (hydrolysis is the process of breaking chemical bonds by adding water; due to an amino acid reaction, it results in a “beefy” flavor), there’s no word as to what else goes into it.
All hail, the delicious and horrifying power of food chemistry!