You Can’t Judge How Healthy Your Food Is By Whether Or Not It Rots

You Can’t Judge How Healthy Your Food Is By Whether Or Not It Rots

Every creature, no matter how noble, is eaten by microbes in the end. It’s the circle of life! So how do we explain the bits of plants and animals that make up a McDonald’s burger, or a Twinkie? Why don’t they rot? It turns out they’re not as immortal as viral Facebook memes would have you believe.

Let’s be clear: McDonald’s burgers and Twinkies last a long time, but it’s not because these items are “not food” or because they’re full of “toxic chemicals”. The truth is far less scandalous. And yet, those are the claims that get passed around every time somebody’s old Happy Meal goes viral. Here’s the latest:

It’s been 6 years since I bought this “Happy Meal” at McDonald’s. It’s been sitting at our office this whole time and has not rotted, moulded, or decomposed at all!!! It smells only of cardboard. We did this experiment to show our patients how unhealthy this “food” is. Especially for our growing children!! There are so many chemicals in this food! Choose real food! Apples, bananas, carrots, celery….those are real fast food.

And here’s the message from Len Foley, who keeps a “museum” of burgers of various ages:

[Question:] What did you do to preserve these hamburgers for so long?

My answer: Nothing. 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.

Nope, nope, nope, nope. McDonald’s burgers are made of the same stuff as any other burger. The patty is beef with salt and pepper, full stop. The buns are similar to packaged bread or hamburger buns you’d buy at the store.

Yes, it’s food. And yes, it’s also full of chemicals. In case you missed the first day of chemistry class, everything in the world is made of chemicals. Water is a chemical. Protein is a chemical. And yes, calcium propionate (found in the bun as a preservative, but not the burger) is also a chemical. But it does not threaten your health.

Let’s think about this line of reasoning for a minute. If things that don’t rot are unhealthy or do not qualify as food, we also shouldn’t eat:

  • Jerky
  • Raisins
  • Honey
  • Rice (stored dry)
  • Whiskey

This is not a world I want to live in! And if growing mould qualifies something as a food, does that mean we can eat shower tile?

Remember, people have been preserving food for centuries, so there are plenty of cases where a food doesn’t rot but is still edible. Jerky is probably the closest analogy to the McDonald’s burger patty: it’s made of meat, but stored in the right conditions it can last almost forever.

McDonald’s Burgers Dry Out

The microbes that make food rot need water to live. If you remove most of the water from something and keep it in a dry place, it won’t rot. That’s what’s happening here.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats did a proper experiment:

Well, well, well. Turns out that not only did the regular McDonald’s burgers not rot, but the home-ground burgers did not rot either. Samples one through five had shrunk a bit (especially the beef patties), but they showed no signs of decomposition. What does this mean?

It means that there’s nothing that strange about a McDonald’s burger not rotting. Any burger of the same shape will act the same way.

And before you go blaming the salt, he included a salt-free burger as well. Same results. In fact, when he compared two different sizes of McDonald’s burgers, the larger one grew a bit of mould but the smaller one did not. That makes sense, since the larger one kept more of its initial moisture.

Still doubtful? Food blog Noms and Sciunce ran the opposite experiment: comparing a McDonald’s burger kept out in the open with one kept in an airtight container (to keep the moisture in). The dry burger lasted; the contained burger grew mould.

So we can rule out the claims about McDonald’s burgers being non-food, and the conspiracy theories about burgers containing dozens of hidden chemicals. It turns out McDonald’s burgers obey the same laws of physics and nature as any other burger.

Twinkies Don’t Last Very Long

The story with Twinkies is a little different. Though they are a more or less exclusively American snack, the resilience of Twinkies has moved into pop culture lore. Their alleged shelf life is the territory of Family Guy jokes, but there aren’t viral photos of petrified Twinkies. In fact, Twinkie engineers only recently figured out how to get the pseudo-cakes to last a whopping 45 days, by filling the packages with a low-oxygen gas. That’s similar to the nitrogen gas technique used to keep wine fresh, and nobody is telling wine snobs that their favourite drink is inedible.

Twinkies actually are a highly processed, engineered, arguably unnatural product — unlike the beef patties in a McDonald’s burger — but they’re still food. As independent Twinkie expert Steve Ettlinger tells NPR:

Perhaps disappointing to foodies, it’s mostly flour and sugar.

The Twinkie’s ingredients include preservatives, and a bunch of other chemicals (remember, chemicals aren’t automatically scary) to mimic the taste and texture of dairy and eggs. Real dairy and eggs would make the cakes spoil faster. The NPR piece has more of the details, and Ettlinger’s book contains as much of the Twinkie’s secrets as he could learn without having to be killed.

And still? The Twinkie rots. George Stevens Academy, a high school in Blue Hill, Maine, has a Twinkie in a glass case. Photographed at 37 years old, it looks grey and crumbly. Definitely not edible.

So Twinkies do go bad, and McDonald’s burgers are no less edible than homemade burgers. Microbes, like us, will eat them if given the chance. To the guy that said “There is only one species on planet Earth that’s stupid enough to think a McDonald’s hamburger is food,” I’m guessing you don’t have a dog.

When you’re tempted to share the latest non-rotting hamburger meme, remember this: if you want to swear off fast food, you have plenty of good reasons to do so. Those burgers, dried or otherwise, are full of saturated fat (arguably unhealthy) and they’re served alongside huge cups of sugary soft drink (which we can all agree is unhealthy). You’re also free to say you just don’t like the taste, or don’t want to support factory farming. Up to you. You have plenty of good arguments at your disposal — so you don’t need to prop up your opinion with something fake.

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