The anatomy of a McDonald’s french fry

McDonald's french fry ingredients
CC BY 2.0 Morgan/Flickr

An anti-foaming agent and beef flavor are just two of the 14 ingredients that go into forming the famous fries.

In a perfect world, french fries are made from potatoes, oil and salt. And indeed, that may be how they are made at home and local eateries. But when it comes to McDonald’s, a chain that in the United States serves some 28 million people a day, it apparently takes a village to build a fry.

In an effort to appeal to Millennials and people seeking real food, McDonald's has hopped aboard the transparency train with a new campaign suggesting a farm-to-restaurant vibe and attempting to dispel doubt about what’s exactly inside their food. And they've even gone so far as to enlist former MythBusters co-host Grant Imahara to abet them in this mission.

In a set of videos Imahara tackles the birth and adolescence of McDonald’s fries, the clever spin goes something like this: “Hey look, McDonald’s french fries are made from real potatoes! Now we’ll show you a farm where we get potatoes! And here’s how we slice them! See? They’re not mushed up golden potato slime extruded into french fry shapes!”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Imahara tells the camera in the video below, standing in the midst of a french fry factory. “These look like potatoes, but are they really potatoes?”

Quite frankly, no, I never thought they were anything else but really potatoes – yet it’s a good marketing ploy. Offer a fake question to drive home the "real food" angle, while being a bit subtler about the rest ... the rest being the 14 ingredients included in each and every french fry.

Which leads us to video number two: The ingredient list. While the company lists 19 ingredients, they use several ingredients in multiple parts of the recipe so removing the duplicates, the actual total number is 14. Here’s the low-down.

1. Potatoes
2. Canola oil
3. Soybean oil
4. Hydrogenated soybean oil
5. Natural beef flavor
6. Hydrolyzed wheat
7. Hydrolyzed milk
8. Citric acid
9. Dimethylpolysiloxane
10. Dextrose
11. Sodium acid pyrophosphate
12. Salt
13. Corn oil
14. TBHQ

While many of these ingredients are recognizable, it's a bit disconcerting to find some of them in french fries. The good news is, as we knew all along, they start with real potatoes! Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Umatilla Russet and the Shepody, to be exact. But things go downhill from there.

As for the tongue twisters in the list? Imahara notes that dimethylpolysiloxane is a mouthful, "I know it sounds scary, but ..." and casually tosses it off as just an anti-foaming agent. Sorry, but ew. And sodium acid pyrophosphate? A chemical preservative that “controls graying” – and one that the FDA does not allow in foods claiming to be “all natural.” Then there's TBHQ, let's just call that a euphemism – because “tertiary-butylhydroquinone” doesn’t sound nearly as appetizing, especially when we know it’s a chemical preservative. Beef, wheat, and milk? Vegans and gluten-avoiders, run for the hills!

In defense of the ingredients, it would be daunting to serve 9 million pounds of consistently-the-same french fries each day without the inclusion of some of these things; and granted, they wouldn’t taste the same without the beef flavor, hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk. Yum. But does that justify the 14-ingredient french fry?

The anatomy of a McDonald’s french fry
An anti-foaming agent and beef flavor are just two of the 14 ingredients that go into forming the famous fries.

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