“Do you want lies with that?” (Fast food hysteria)


McDonald’s is not my first culinary choice, nor even my 11th. But my home decision-making is limited to when schoolwork is done and when bedrooms are cleaned, so my five children see to it that we end up at the Golden Arches once or twice a month.

There, many dangers await, according to an assortment of gruesome graphics and frightful photos. We’ll look today at the stated dangers of a standard meal of a Big Mac, fries, and Coke. First, though, a couple of more items that appear in announcements featuring capital letters, multiple exclamation points, and exhortations to arise from slumber.

One video shows a McDonald’s cheeseburger being dipped in acid. The commentator notes that four hours later, it is merely darkened, not broken down, and invites viewers to imagine this black blob festering inside of them. However, the acid has no digestive properties, nor is it in someone’s stomach working with other organs to break the food down and dispense it through the body for nutritional benefit. The experiment is pointless from a scientific standpoint, but does meet its fearmongering intent.

Another video is of a hamburger that is said to be from two to 14 years old, yet neither this former cow nor the bun that houses it has begun to rot. There is no way to verify the hamburger’s age, but the claim could be true, and it has nothing to do with a plot between evil corporations, mad scientists, and Grimace. It has everything to do with storage. Lacking sufficient moisture in the food or surroundings, bacteria and mold will not grow and decomposition will not occur. A hamburger’s size and shape allow it to repel moisture quickly, which makes decomposition even less likely. And that’s true whether it’s a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a Jumbo Jack, or Amy’s California Veggie Burger.

Now onto the main course. A trio of viral graphics purports to establish that a Big Mac, Coke, and fries make for a most malevolent meal. We already know what happens to someone when they consume tens of thousands of Big Macs and Cokes. They make a couple of documentary cameos, get a book published, and become a slice of Americana and a borderline D List celebrity.

But the focus here is one serving of each, so let’s start with the sandwich and its distinctive two lower buns. The first point in the graphic is that the Big Mac hooks us because of how our ancestors adapted. It reads, “Our brains evolved during a time when food was scarce, so we became adept at choosing high-calorie foods.” This is meant to suggest that our Neolithic grandpappies needed high-calorie meals to survive because their brains were developing, but that we no longer need this and yet continue to crave it. Combined with our hunting-gathering now being limited to us foraging in the vicinity of the deep freeze, our bodies are paying a (literally) heavy price. But this point has the connection between high-calorie food and brain development backwards. It’s not that our brains evolved and grew, necessitating that we eat high calorie foods to compensate. Rather, we developed our cognitive function from scarfing food that was high in fat and protein, causing our brains to grow and develop.

Whatever the evolutionary impact of Big Mac consumption, the graphic next warns us that it will “trigger your brain’s reward system by releasing a surge of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, which induce feelings of pleasure.” This is accurate, but is a half-truth without context. Anytime pleasure is received, dopamine is released. So if one enjoys Big Macs, here comes the neurotransmitter rush. This goes for any food, as well as roller coasters, poker, and listening to Beethoven, if one enjoys those pursuits.

The second half of this point reads, “This process works in a similar way to cocaine and contributes to the likelihood of compulsive eating.” This is at once the guilt-by-association and composition fallacies. For any neophyte critical thinkers out there, first, welcome to my blog. Second, a composition fallacy is when someone takes two items that maybe have something in common and asserts this means they are alike in totality. But while Big Macs and cocaine are both ingested and may enhance released dopamine, the similarities end there. No one goes into beef withdrawal, the special sauce doesn’t tear families apart, and no mother has ever given birth to a pickle-addicted baby.

A third claim warns of excessive amounts of high fructose corn syrup and sodium. Yet there are just seven grams of the former, compared to the 30 grams in fat-free yogurt. The sodium is a little high, but at just over 40 percent of the recommended daily limit, is not a dangerous amount. The graph further claims this could lead to dehydration, yet sports drinks contain sodium precisely because of the role it plays in replacing electrolytes lost through perspiration.

Next is an assertion that the Big Mac takes 51 days to digest. This is off by 50, by which I don’t mean that it takes 101 days. The graph offers no source for this and it has now gone from half-truths to zero-truths.

It then veers back to half-truths by accurately listing what is in the two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. But it never bothers to explain the relevance and this is meant only to appeal to chemophobia. This is accomplished by  referencing ammonium sulfate, azodicarbonamide, and many other polysyllabic offerings. One could do this with almost any item, including human blood, green tea, and bananas.

Enough about the sandwich, on to what we are going to wash it down with. A second viral graphic makes some astonishing claims about what happens when one drinks a Coke. First up is the assertion that the 10 teaspoons of sugar in a serving would make the consumer vomit if it weren’t for phosphoric acid that makes it less sweet. But BuzzFeed quoted Dr. Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional biologist, as saying, “This is not true. We have studied hundreds of participants in our studies who consumed beverages that contained more than 10 teaspoons of sugar, but no phosphoric acid. No one ever vomited due to the sweetness, and I don’t remember any of them ever reporting that they felt nauseated due to the sweetness.”

The graph also attempts the dopamine/drug gambit: “Your body ups your dopamine production by stimulating the pleasure centers of your brain. This is physically the same way heroin works.” The composition fallacy was addressed earlier, so here I just want to focus on the problem with cherry picking. A dopamine deficiency could lead to Parkinson’s, so taking this one isolated fact, a person could claim this shows that chugging away on Coke while shooting up heroin would be a beneficial for avoiding nervous system disorders.

Yet another tale of lurid lunches and diabolic dinners centers on McDonald’s French fries. The associated graph purports to show the difference between what we in the U.S. consume, compared to our northerly neighbors. Our fries are supposedly crammed with 17 dangerous Frankenstein concoctions, while the fortunate Canadians are worry-free.

Again, the chemophobia is almost as heavy as the ketchup I prefer on my fried potatoes. A long series of chemicals are listed without explaining what it means or why it should matter. And the truth is, dimethylpolysiloxane is there to reduce foaming and oil splattering, while sodium acid pyrophosphate is added to prevent the fries from turning gray. These agents and the rest play an important role and are all safe. Another key point is that toxicity and danger are determined by dose, not chemical or element.

When I pointed all this out to the Friend who posted the graphic, he lamented, “Why can’t we just have fries, salt, and ketchup?” Yet those could be made to sound scary if one doesn’t know better. Salt is a fusion of sodium and chloride, which are potentially dangerous on their own. Sodium will even explode under the right conditions. Ketchup has monosodium glutamate in it and potatoes contain chlorogenic acid. When I typed that last one, it gave me a squiggly line underneath. They don’t even know what it is and they are feeding it to our children!

When Mike Barrett at naturalsociety.com, writes, “McDonald’s fries contain a petrol-based chemical called tertiary butylhydroquinone,” he is either being ignorant or a fear monger. This ingredient serves as a food preservative and Barrett’s point is no more valid than him questioning the efficiency of Exxon’s gasoline because it has a common ingredient with a tasty side order.  

Barrett next asks, “Did you know that McDonald’s French fries contain a form of silicone found in Silly Putty?” I did not, though I was aware that the same element or chemical can be used safely in multiple products, as what it’s combined with will change its properties.

With a wealth of scientific information readily available, there is no excuse for spreading fear over facts. Had Barrett conducted a Google search, he would have found websites like chem4kids.com, where concepts like chemical reactions are explained in deliberately simple terms. I will make a point to introduce my children to that site the next time we access McDonald’s WiFi.



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