Why won’t those McDonald’s burgers go bad?
…and a recipe for brand new chicken burgers with blue cheese and wholemeal buns
Ever heard of the old McDonald’s burgers people keep that never go bad? Ever wondered why? I’ll give you what I think is the most logical, fact based explanation, and I’m afraid it’s going to be devoid of any evil-meat-industry-conspiracy-theories and references to all those scary chemicals.
And if you’re not too keen on a McDonald’s burger even after reading that, there’s a recipe for chicken burgers and wholemeal buns! Yay!
News update 20.10.10:
This article was featured on the very excellent podcast The Reality Check by Ottawa Skeptics.
The last week has seen a revival of the discussion of this topic. I was not aware of it when I published this article, but yet another old burger has been picked up by the media. This time it’s an art project done by Sally Davies who has photographed a Happy Meal nearly every day for six months. There are quite a few newspaper articles, blog posts and forum discussions, and even a few experiments. The Burger lab has an ongoing experiment which is quite well-designed, involving McDonald’s burgers, home made burgers, separated buns and patties, and different storage conditions. It’ll be interesting to see the outcome! In the meantime, I would like to urge anyone who can bother to join the discussions and present some rational alternatives to all the pseudoscientific explanations.
So, I wanted to do a slightly more controversial topic than browning apples and pizza aesthetics this time.
There’s an issue that has been bugging the hell out of me for years : the supposedly immortal McDonald’s burgers. Do a Google search on “old McDonald’s burger” and you’ll see that there are a lot of them around. The most famous ones would be this 12 year old burger, the nearly 4 year old burger in this video,
this guy who has his own museum and his Youtube video:
So to sum it up: those burgers (and many more) are several years old and have not gone bad. They’re not moldy or decomposing in any way. Why? They’re food, right? Meat and bread should normally go bad, right?
The usual explanations are “unnatural food”, “lots of preservatives”, “chemicals” or some half-assed cooked up conspiracy theory about modern meat farming. What really bugs me about this is that people run along with their instinctive reactions (food + not going bad = scary and not understandable) and try to explain it with other instinctive reactions (unnatural things in food = also scary, and not understandable).
It’s OK to react. It’s OK to think it’s strange or scary or whatever. It’s also OK to go past the first thoughts that pop into your head and try to investigate a bit more. Let’s see how the burger owners’ arguments hold up to that investigation.
Argument 1: preservatives. Lots of preservatives.
My general impression is that most people’s reaction is that the burgers are so full of preservatives that they will probably neverever go bad. Turns out that’s not it:
According to the McDonald’s website, these are the ingredients in their plain hamburgers:
100% pure USDA inspected beef; no fillers, no extenders. Prepared with grill seasoning (salt, black pepper).
So no preservatives there.
The buns have a lot more ingredients. The list is long and difficult to pronounce, and might possibly look a teeny bit scary, even to me. And because of that, I’m probably going to write a separate post about the ingredients later – just to se if they’re really as scary as they look. However, there are only two preservatives; calcium propionate and sodium propionate. Both are considered safe by the FDA, as based on research. They are also very common, and not in any way unique to McDonald’s; they are used by most industrial bakeries. Calcium propionate actually occurs naturally in butter, cheese, apples, strawberries and grains. Proprionates work in not very scary ways; they disrupt the metabolic processes of microorganisms and inhibit their ability to grow or colonize.
Argument 2: there is no nutritional content in the meat
Ladies, Gentleman, and children alike – this is a chemical food. There is absolutely no nutrition here. (…)McDonald’s fills an empty space in your belly. It does nothing to nourish the cell, it is not a nutritious food.
Huh? Aren’t burgers usually made of …meat? Meat is nutritious? Again, the McDonald’s hamburgers are made from 100% beef. So there’s meat. Lots of it. Meat is muscle, and muscles are, according to Wikipedia, on average consisting of
75 percent water, 19 percent protein, 2.5 percent intramuscular fat, 1.2 percent carbohydrates and 2.3 percent other soluble non-protein substances. These include nitrogenous compounds, such as amino acids, and inorganic substances such as minerals.
But apparently, there’s no nutrition, even when concidering that mold will eat almost anything. Wow, I’d sure be interested in an explanation of how on earth McDonald’s have done this?
She has one:
Ever hear of factory farming? Please Educate Yourself: Watch The Meatrix
The Meatrix is a little film about the negative sides of modern meat farming. I suppose the film and web site could have some good points (except that it is far too fanatical and one-sided for me to be able to take it seriously) – but how on earth can factory farming change the fact that muscles mostly consist of water, protein and fat? And besides – I can’t find anything on the website that supports the claim of denutrified meat – actually it mentions artificial additives that increase the nutritional value as one of the problems with factory farming. Jeez! At least read your own sources? There’s also a paragraph about additives that slightly extend the shelf life of meat, but that is nowhere near a good explanation either.
Besides – why the hell would the farms want to remove all the nutrients? I have absolutely no idea how it would be done, but I am guessing it would take a lot of time, research, work and money. And what would the payback be? Selling meat to a company that keeps their burgers frozen until they’re cooked? I don’t get it.
There’s been done some research on the nutritional values of pasture raised and conventionally raised cattle – and while there are some indications that conventionally raised cattle may be slightly less nutritious there is absolutely nothing that indicates that conventional beef is empty.
Argument 3: the meat is full of chemicals
(…)these hamburgers are not food substances (the way we normally think of food), they are chemical concoctions that contain the look, taste, and smell of food but don’t be fooled… there is nothing “food-like” about these substances at all. (…)McDonald’s has over 33,000 restaurants worldwide. The only way they can make their hamburgers and fries taste virtually the same at every restaurant is by taking the “uncertain variables” out of the food service equation: namely, they replace food (which has a tendency to taste different depending on the season, environmental conditions, and quality) with CHEMICALS, which ALWAYS look, smell, and taste the same.
Again with the “removing the natural-ness of the meat” type of argument.
First of all, it’s minced meat. It doesn’t taste a lot, especially when it’s fried to death and covered with a ton of ketchup and pickles on it. Also, it’s minced meat. That means it’s got several different meat cuts, from several different animals in it. That will even out any differences in taste you might have noticed if you had a single steak. Ever heard the myth about there being meat from 100 cows in one burger? While that is extremely exaggerated, it does make a good point. The funny thing is, he even mentions this at the end of the video, except that he claims that it is from a 1000 cows. Allegedly a thousand cows, and he still thinks it’s strange that different burgers taste the same? I am speechless.
No wait, I’m not. HAVE YOU GOT ANY IDEA HOW CRAZY THAT SOUNDS!? Replacing food with chemicals? Newsflash buddy: food already consists of chemicals! Everything in meat – water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats and minerals are built up by chemical compounds! Even if McDonald’s were to replace these with synthetic chemicals, the bacteria or mold wouldn’t know because the chemicals would have exactly the same properties!
It is such a common misconception that “natural” chemicals are good and “man-made” chemicals are dangerous and bad for you. I seriously recommend that people read Sense about Science’s Making sense of chemical stories. It is packed full of fact based, scientifically relevant mythbusting.
Thirdly, what do I know – I am an archaeologist – but I don’t really think it’s possible to do that. This is stupid to the point that I don’t care if I’m making an argument from incredulity right now, but I just can’t see how that would be possible. It is possible to grow meat in a lab, but that is a process still under development. And even that meat is based on muscle cells from an actual animal – there is no “taking the animal and replacing the meat with something that looks and tastes like meat but isn’t”. It’s also pretty darn expensive, and not quite something I think McDonald’s would bother to do for a hamburger that’s going to be sold for a couple of dollars.
Argument 4: the meat has a lot of chemical residue in it
Burger Museum Man’s explanation seems to be ever so slightly incoherent. On his website he claims that the meat has been replaced by chemicals. In his video he seems to think that the meat is still meat, but pumped full of chemicals. And of course he’s not referring to the naturally occurring chemicals in the burgers, he’s referring to the dangerous, very chemical chemicals that large, evil companies use. Did you see the list of “ingredients” (his words, not mine) at the end of the video?
Those are indeed real. They are all chemical compounds that have been be traced in foods by the FDA – chemical compounds that should not be there and would be bad for your health in large doses. What the smartass doesn’t tell you is how rarely those compounds are found. If you check out the USDA Food safety and Inspection Service website and especially their Red book the truth is somewhat less scary than what you’d think from watching all the YouTube propaganda.
In 2008, 17 876 meat samples were analyzed and tested for different, law regulated residues, out of which 20 – twenty – residue violations were found. More particularly: 1 405 samples of beef were tested, and three samples came out positive for compound residue, out of which two were non-violative. That means that 99,93% of the beef is residue free, and 99,98% is within the limits of what is considered safe. The violative compound was arsenic, the non-violative compounds were Chlorinated Hydrocarbons. Both of these are toxic in large doses, however I can’t seem to find anything about them preventing meat from going bad, or making it taste the same at all seasons and areas of the world.
There is also a section about inspector generated sampling – which is done when it is suspected that an animal may have violative levels of chemical residues. These results are somewhat higher with 52 out of 4635 samples giving positive results. Some of these are antibiotics (which weren’t found in any of the regular samples), and there certainly are a number of issues concerning the use of antibiotics in industrial farming. But again: I can’t find anything that suggests that antibiotic residue would prevent food from going moldy/bad, or to always taste the same. Besides, McDonald’s actually has a pretty strict antibiotics policy.
OK, so the theories so far are tons of preservatives, meat magically stripped of all nutrition and meat somehow replaced by “chemicals”, but not the ones that can be traced. All this is based on the fact that the burgers don’t mold.
Instead, what if the explanation is something really simple? A phenomena we see every day? Something that doesn’t need the invention of gigantic conspiracies and physical and biological impossibilities in order to make sense. What if it’s something small and innocent like…
…lack of moisture!?
No, seriously. Both mold and bacteria need moisture to grow. The 12 year old burger was kept in a cupboard for the first year – even with the bun and burger separated. The bionic burger in a fabric pocket. The 4 year old burger in a lunch box. The Norwegian burger in a paper bag. In other words – only in conditions that would allow the burger to dry up.
Think about it: when was the last time you saw moldy oatmeal? Or moldy dried lentils, raisins, crackers, beef jerky, herbs, pasta, or slices of bread forgotten on a plate? Drying things is a preservative!
In addition, both the burger and fries are fried at high heat. Frying does two things: the heat kills of any pathogens that may be in the food – thus leaving the product close to sterile. It also evaporates and, if at a high enough temperature, expels a lot of water in the food, and replaces it with fat. Mold is not too keen on fat when there’s little moisture around. The end result is a sterile, dry food that has lousy growth conditions for molds and many bacteria. Recommended read: this super cool article at The burger Lab that explains the science of frying.
Barry Swanson, a professor at the Washington State University department of food science believes the fat content is crucial to the immortality of the burgers and fries, in addition to the salt
McDonald’s French fries, for example, which have repeatedly proven their hardiness to spoilage, contain citric acid as a preservative. But a bigger factor might be the fat content of the fries. About 50 percent of the total 250 calories contained in a small order of fries come from fat. “Anything that is high in fat will be low in moisture,” (…) McDonald’s fries are also coated in a nice, thick layer of salt, something we’ve been using as a natural preservative for the last 2,500 years.
(…) The beef patty is also high in fat — varying between 37 and 54 percent of the total caloric content — and has been cooked at a high temperature.
Which is why it is som mindboggingly stupid that the woman in the diet.com video actually compares a french fry to a fresh, uncooked potato. She even ponts out that the french fry is oily and salty!
There is even more things that support this theory – Morgan Spurlock – the guy behind Supersize Me! – did just that. He put several McDonald’s burgers on glass jars that would seal in the moisture, and guess what? They molded!
(The original video has been removed so I had to link to this one. Unfortunately it’s been uploaded by someone who hasn’t really gotten the point.)
This experiment has been replicated by carrie at Stay Free! Magazine. Her fries and burgers were stored in a plastic bin. They molded.
Some might question why the McDonald’s fries and burger molded less than the diner equivalents. The answer is probably in the size. The burger is thinner, and so are the fries – which means that they are exposed to more heat per surface area – and that kills off more pathogens and reduces more of the water content.
That argument is supported by an experiment done by Mark Vaughan including a home made but smaller, more thoroughly cooked hamburger, a McDonald’s burger and a Burger King burger AND an organic tomato. They all molded.
A fourth experiment has been done by… me!
I bought a plain hamburger. In order to test my hypothesis about moisture being the key, I cut the burger in three and stored the pieces in different conditions.
A was kept in a container with a loose, non-tight lid that would allow plenty of air circulation. Pretty much the same conditions that all the old burgers have been kept in.
B was kept in a container with a tight lid, to keep it from drying up.
C was kept in a similar container, but I also sprinkled it with a few drops of water to add some extra moisture to see if this would increase the mold growth even more.
The results? Have a look:
This one looks exactly like it did when I put it in the container. And exactly like all the other old burgers. The bread is dry end crumbles a bit, and the burger is kinda rubbery and hard. Not a sign of mold or any other type of decomposing.
I so rest my case.
I have not done anything to this burger except for keeping it in a container that is more air tight than the one burger A was kept in. It stinks, it’s falling apart, and I swear that it gave me an evil stare when I threw it away.
I partly messed this one up. The first container I put it in actually made it dry out completely like burger A before I noticed. By the time I moved it to a new container a week had already passed. However, it still supports my theory, because after I added some more water it molded quite quickly.
That just about sums it up. It’s hard to leave this case when there are so many stupid claims that are left uncommented, but I could go on forever then. I really could. Instead, I’d rather do something more useful:
Still in the mood for some food? Yeah, me too.
Chicken burgers with blue cheese and wholemeal buns
These burgers are super juicy, super tasty and super easy to make.
Hamburgers500 g ground chicken 1 tsp salt 1 tbsp tomato purée 2 eggs 1 finely chopped medium-sized onion 1 tsp oregano 1 tsp paprika powder Blue cheese
Mix everything except for the cheese together. The result may be a bit gooey, but it should still be all right. Mine ended up being too sloppy to be shaped into burgers before putting it in the frying pan – so I just scooped up a bunch with my hand and threw it in the pan.
Fry the burgers on high heat for about 3 minutes on each side. Add the cheese in the end, it will melt on top of the burger. Top it with some cheese in the end and let it melt on top of the burger.
Wholemeal buns (8 buns)25 g fresh yeast or half a bag of dry yeast 50 g butter 3,5 dl milk ½ tsp salt ½ tsp sugar 300 g flour 200 g coarse ground wholemeal flour (grov sammalt hvete in Norwegian) Sesame and/or flax seeds
Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Melt the butter and add the milk. Measure the temperature by putting a few drops on the back of your wrist, when it is body temperature or slightly warmer, add the fresh yeast and stir. If you are using dry yeast, add it to the dry ingredients. Then add the milk and butter. If the dough is very sticky, add some more flour.
Cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and leave to rise in a warm-ish place (I usually just turn on the cooker and place the bowl on top of that) for 30-45 mins. Then separate the dough into 8 equal parts, and make flat burger buns. Cover with a towel again, and leave for 15 minutes. Brush the rolls with a bit of milk or egg, and sprinkle the seeds on top.
Bake in the middle of the oven, at 200°C for 10-12 mins, until they are lightly brown in colour.