It’s not exactly news that fast food contains fillers, additives, and lessons in chemistry that would make your high school teacher proud. Despite a recent push toward fewer artificial ingredients, fast food restaurants still serve chemical concoctions by the millions. In particular, sauce packets and condiments tell the tale of food that’s not quite the food it’s supposed to be.
True butter is a dairy product that has been churned to separate butterfat from buttermilk. But at most fast food restaurants, the “butter” you’ll get isn’t made from milk. Instead, “buttery spread” is processed from oil. The packet at KFC, for example, “Colonel’s Buttery Spread” is made from liquid and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, water, salt, hydrogenated soybean oil, vegetable mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, sodium benzoate, natural and artificial flavor, beta carotene, and vitamin B palmitate. At Burger King, the favored term for “butter” is “butter blend”; however, its most recent nutritional information doesn’t list what blended. So why go artificial and not the real thing? Ventura Foods, which supplies the butter blend to Burger King under the brand name Sunglow, touts on its website “consumer taste preference and price stability versus butter.”
Honey is made from one ingredient: honey. And at McDonald’s, Pure Honey, which was exactly that, used to be the norm. But these days, you’ll get “honey sauce.” While it’s nowhere to be found on McDonald’s American website, in Canada, the honey sauce is described as “honey, glucose-fructose and natural honey flavour.” (I guess the honey didn’t taste enough like honey that it needed some added flavor, or flavour as the Canucks would have it). Same thing at KFC: its honey sauce is made from high fructose corn syrup, sugar, honey, corn syrup, natural flavor, and caramel color. By adding sweeteners and fillers, these fast food chains attempt to avoid fluctuations in the price of natural honey and bulk up what natural honey they do buy.
Syrup (minus Maple)
Maple syrup is specifically made from the sap of maple trees, but there is no standard definition for just plain old syrup. Any sugary substance can be syrup, so fast food chains use this moniker freely. McDonald’s offers Hotcake Syrup, which is made from corn syrup, sugar, water, artificial maple flavor, potassium sorbate, and caramel color. Burger King calls it “Breakfast Syrup,” while Jack in the Box calls it “Pancake Syrup.”
Popeye’s used to offer a Sweet Honey Maple Sauce, and both real honey and real maple syrup were among its ingredients. However, it was a limited-time product, and honey and maple syrup were far from its only components (note the use of “sauce”).
“Cheese sauce” and “Melty”
Real cheese is made from natural ingredients such as milk, cheese culture, enzymes, and salt. Processed cheeses start with real cheeses that are then reheated, blended, pasteurized, and mixed with emulsifiers. “Pasteurized cheese food,” “pasteurized process cheese food,” and “pasteurized process cheese product,” are created to produce uniform, sometimes lower-fat, meltable slices or sauces.
Little Caesar’s Soft Pretzel Crust Pizza is advertised as “creamy cheddar cheese sauce, a blend of 100% real cheese, and pepperoni, and then finished with an irresistible four-cheese gourmet blend of Asiago, Fontina, Parmesan, and White Cheddar cheese.” The kicker is in the commas: the “creamy cheddar cheese sauce” isn’t made of 100% real cheese; rather, the pizza is layered with the cheddar cheese sauce and then topped with 100% real cheese.
You’ll also find cheddar cheese sauce on Wendy’s Pulled Pork Cheese Fries and Broccoli Cheese Baked Potato. What’s in it? According to the website, “Water, Cheddar Cheese (pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), Milk, Cream Cheese Spread (pasteurized milk and cream, cheese culture, salt, carob bean gum), Modified Cornstarch, Non Fat Dry Milk, Soybean Oil, Palm Oil, Whey, Sodium Phosphate, Cream, Cheese Culture, Milk Fat, Parmesan Cheese (pasteurized part-skim milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzyme), Butter, Salt And Sea Salt, Sodium Alginate, Carob Bean Gum, Mono & Diglycerides, Annatto And Apocarotenal (color), Lactic Acid.”
Most cheese slices on fast food burgers are processed, too. If it’s topped with American, the cheese only has to be 51% real cheese. So the Quarter Pounder with Cheese at McDonald’s is a pasteurized process American cheese, and even the Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger must come with an asterisk, because it’s a pasteurized process “melty” cheddar.