The movie Supersize Me has probably had more of an effect than the producers anticipated. Since then, in the fast food industry, there has been a market trend promoting menu items that appear to be healthy. But most of these menu items have ingredients that health conscious consumers would prefer to avoid.
Most health conscious consumers consider healthy foods to be things like raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, raw nuts and seeds, and clean meats like wild Alaskan salmon, or free-range chicken or turkey.
Some ingredients that health conscious consumers consider unacceptable are MSG (or free glutamate, or free glutamic acid, including anything hydrolyzed or autolyzed), trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils ), artificial colors, artificial flavors, and most preservatives.
Many so-called healthy fast food menu items, upon closer inspection, do not live up to the health hype. Most of the meat from any of the major chains has anything but a simple ingredients list. They add emulsifiers, preservatives, MSG, artificial colors, trans fats, and hidden ingredients under generic labels such as spices, or natural and artificial flavors.
Some of these food additives are not foods at all, but are chemicals that are generally recognized as safe. Most of these additives cannot be found at your local grocery store, probably because they aren’t food. But some can be found at your local hardware store, though in inedible products like low tox antifreeze, silicone caulk, soap, sunscreen, and play sand.
The ingredient information in this article came straight from the various fast food restaurants’ web sites.
The egg’s reputation is recovering, but scrambled eggs as a part of McDonald’s breakfast include much more than egg. Their pasteurized whole eggs have sodium acid pyrophosphate, citric acid, and monosodium phosphate (all added to preserve color), and nisin, a preservative. To top it off, the eggs are prepared with liquid margarine: liquid soybean oil, water, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils (trans fats), salt, hydrogenated cottonseed oil (trans fat), soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate (preservatives), artificial flavor, citric acid, vitamin A palmitate, and beta carotene (color). Though not all bad, these added chemicals may be the reason why homemade scrambled eggs taste so much better than McDonald’s.
For coffee drinkers, it would seem fairly safe to just grab a quick cup of coffee at McDonalds on the way to work. But many health conscious people would object to it also including this list of ingredients: sodium phosphate, sodium polyphosphate, Di-Acetyl Tartrate Ester of Monoglyceride, sodium stearoyl lactylate, tetra sodium pyrophosphate, sodium hexametaphosphate, sodium citrate, and carrageenan. Do health nuts still drink coffee?
Salads can usually be counted on to be a “what you see is what you get” item. But McDonald’s adds some interesting ingredients. The salads with grilled chicken also have liquid margarine.
Several salads have either cilantro lime glaze, or orange glaze added. Along with many of McDonald’s sauces, both the cilantro lime glaze and the orange glaze contain propylene glycol alginate. While propylene glycol is considered “GRAS” for human consumption, it is not legal for use in cat food because the safety hasn’t been proven yet . Proplene glycol is also used “As the killing and preserving agent in pitfall traps, usually used to capture ground beetles” .
The chili lime tortilla strips that are included in the southwest salads have several ingredients used to hide MSG. They also contain two ingredients that advertise the presence of MSG: disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate.
The chicken has sodium phosphates (of an unspecified variety). It could be trisodium phosphate (a cleanser), monosodium phosphate (a laxative), or disodium hydrogen phosphate . Why would McDonald’s add sodium phosphates (a foaming agent), and dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent in their crispy chicken breast filets? It isn’t dishwasher detergent.
It’s interesting to note that the BK Veggie Burger has six ingredients commonly used to hide free glutamate (MSG): calcium caseinate, hydrolyzed corn, yeast extract, soy protein isolate, spices, and natural flavors. At the end of the ingredients list, it states This is NOT a vegan product. The patty is cooked in the microwave. Was that a warning statement?
Burger King has three salads to choose from. The TENDERCRISP Garden Salad, the TENDERGRILL Garden Salad, and the Side Garden Salad.
A salad may be a little boring without a dressing like Ken’s Fat Free Ranch Dressing which includes titanium dioxide (an artificial color, or sunscreen, depending on use), preservatives, and the ingredient seemingly mandatory in all ranch dressings: monosodium glutamate.
Once again, as is typical with the fast food industry, they took a simple thing like chicken, and added a long list of ingredients.
TENDERGRILL® CHICKEN BREAST FILET
Chicken Breast with Rib Meat, Water, Seasoning (Maltodextrin, Salt, Sugar, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Garlic Powder, Spices, Natural Flavors, Onion Powder, Modified Corn Starch, Chicken Fat, Chicken Powder, Chicken Broth, Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate, Citric Acid, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Dehydrated Garlic, and Artificial Flavors.), Modified Corn Starch, Soybean Oil, Salt, Sodium Phosphates. Glazed with: Water, Seasoning [Maltodextrin, Salt, Sugar, Methylcellulose, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Partially Hydrogenated Sunflower Oil, Modified Potato Starch, Fructose, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Dehydrated Garlic, Spices, Modified Corn Starch, Xanthan Gum, Natural Flavors, Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate, Chicken Fat, Carmel Color, Grill Flavor (from Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil), Chicken Powder, Chicken Broth, Turmeric, Smoke Flavor, Annatto Extract, and Artificial Flavors], Soybean Oil. 
Taco Bell’s website didn’t have much emphasis on health. Under the nutrition guide, at the bottom was a link to Keep it Balanced, a token nod to health. It had no serious information on how to really eat healthy. They recommend foods like pizza and tacos (no surprise) because they may include ingredients from several food groups at once. Including several food groups does not necessarily mean it’s a healthy food.
The seasoned beef, carne asada steak, spicy shredded chicken, and even the rice all include autolyzed yeast extract (hidden MSG). Disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate are flavor enhancers used in synergy with MSG [7,8]. Therefore, menu items with disodium inosinate and/or disodium guanylate also contain MSG. This includes the avocado ranch dressing, southwest chicken, citrus salsa, creamy jalapeno sauce, creamy lime sauce, lime seasoned red strips, pepper jack sauce, and seasoned rice.
According to Wikipedia, dimethylpolysiloxane is optically clear, and is generally considered to be inert, non-toxic, and non-flammable. It is used in silicone caulk, adhesives, and as an anti-foaming agent . Appetizingly enough, it’s also included in Taco Bell’s rice.
At Wendy’s, there are several tempting salads. The mandarin chicken salad seems healthy at first glance. It has diced chicken, mandarin oranges, almonds, crispy noodles, your choice of dressings, and five different varieties of lettuce. Then reality takes a bite when you check the ingredients list. The almonds are roasted and salted. The crispy noodles are not whole grain. The mandarin orange segments are not freshly peeled oranges; most likely canned. The diced chicken has added autolyzed yeast extract (MSG), disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, sodium phosphates (soap?), salt, more salt, sugar, modified corn startch (sic), and the universal umbrella ingredient list: spices, natural flavors, and artificial flavors.
In the ingredients lists for the salad dressings, one surprise was titanium dioxide in the Low Fat Honey Mustard Dressing and the Reduced Fat Creamy Ranch Dressing. It’s a very versatile chemical. It can be used to manufacture paint, sunscreen, semiconductors, and food coloring .
Wendy’s Southwest Taco Salad is a salad with Wendy’s chili. Once again, the chili has hidden MSG: autolyzed yeast extract, spices, artificial flavors, natural flavorings, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate (MSG give-aways). It’s puzzling to try to understand why their chili would need to include an anti-caking agent such as silicon dioxide (also known as sand, or glass powder).
See if you can spot the sunscreen, MSG, and soap in this Wendy’s ingredient:
Seasoned Tortilla Strips
Whole Corn, Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: corn, soybean or sunflower oil), Salt, Buttermilk Solids, Spices, Tomato, Sweet Cream, Dextrose, Onion, Sugar, Cheddar Cheese (cultured milk, salt, enzymes), Corn Starch, Modified Corn Starch, Maltodextrin, Nonfat Dry Milk, Garlic, Torula Yeast, Citric Acid, Autolyzed Yeast, Natural and Artifical Flavor, Artificial Colors (including extractives of paprika, turmeric and annatto, titanium dioxide, red 40, yellow 5, blue 1), Disodium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Soy Lecithin. CONTAINS: MILK.
Apparently, taste really is all that matters at Wendy’s.
If a sandwich is advertised as healthy, one would expect that the bread would be whole grain. Not so with Subway’s wheat bread. While it does have some whole wheat flour, it’s the third ingredient, listed just before high fructose corn syrup . None of Subway’s breads are whole grain. Ammonium sulfate (a fertilizer) is also added. Unfinished sandwiches may be composted. The bread also contains azodicarbonamide. From Wikipedia,
Use of azodicarbonamide as a food additive is banned in Australia. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive has identified azodicarbonamide as a respiratory sensitiser (a possible cause of asthma) and determined that products should be labeled with May cause sensitisation by inhalation .
Most of the meats at Subway contain MSG and/or sodium nitrite.
The chicken, the gravy, and even the rice all have monosodium glutamate added. Not surprisingly, the chicken in the salads also has MSG. For a healthy menu item, the House Side Salad without dressing has nothing more than iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, and tomatoes.
KFC claims 0g trans fat per serving for all their fried chicken. But The Extra Crispy Chicken, Colonel’s Crispy Strips, HBBQ Wings, Boneless HBBQ Wings, Fiery Buffalo Wings, and more have partially hydrogenated soybean oil listed in the ingredients. So if the trans fat content is below 0.5g per serving, they can round down to zero and claim zero grams per serving.
The salad a la carte may be the only healthy thing to eat at a fast food place. The side salads offered at the fast food places are hardly a meal, and hardly what one would consider a real salad.
Regarding MSG, it is helpful to remember this statement from Wikipedia when reading food labels.
Under current FDA regulations, when MSG is added to a food, it must be identified as monosodium glutamate in the label’s ingredient list. If however MSG is part of a spice mix that is purchased by another company, the manufacturer does not have to list the ingredients of that spice mix and may use the words flavorings or spices. Even food that uses the no msg label may therefore have MSG that is added from a spice mix from another company under current FDA regulations.
As with most meat products in fast food restaurants, consider any meat, including on salads, to include MSG, chemical preservatives, and trans fats. Even seemingly simple items like rice can have ingredients like anti-foaming agents.
About the author
John Andrews is an electrical engineer currently living in Utah. He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2001 at the University of Utah. John has adopted a whole foods lifestyle rich in raw fruits and vegetables. This lifestyle change has produced a noticeable improvement in physical health, appearance, and mental clarity. He savors knowledge and is eager to teach others how to be healthy.