Although McDonald’s has taken steps to make their food healthier, most of their offerings have a lot of calories and sodium - sometimes with preservatives but rarely with many other nutrients. Their labor practices are similarly poor and meat production for their burgers is a driver of antibiotic resistance and global climate change.
McDonald’s is a true fast food giant: they feed around 1% of the world every day, or 68 million people. Their net worth is on par with the economy of Afghanistan. They’re the world’s largest distributor of toys, according to the Fiscal Times, and they employ more people than live in Luxemburg.
But is McDonald’s bad for you? That depends. Many McDonald’s offerings - even their salads - are loaded with way more sodium and calories than you need. Others use questionable preservatives. The company has made some progress towards a healthier image as of late: they’ve put calorie counts on menus, simplified their chicken nugget recipe and offered more low-calorie choices. That’s tangible evidence that McDonald’s is a little healthier than before. Even with these changes, however, it’s best that you only eat there infrequently. And one thing that hasn’t changed much are their substandard labor and environmental practices.
What to order there? Many of us would order a Big Mac. But does it rot if we don’t eat it? There’s long been whispers that McDonald’s hamburgers are processed to the point of immortality: exhibit number one is the “oldest burger in the world,” purchased at the golden arches before it sat perfectly preserved in a coat pocket for more than a decade.
This runs counter to the company’s claim they use no preservatives in their meat (buns are a different story). Food blog Serious Eats checked it out with a simple experiment - keeping different homemade and McDonald’s burgers side by side, and checking them daily for mold and weight loss via dehydration while controlling for other variables. They found that McDonald's burgers do, in fact, mold when kept in a wet environment, as do homemade burgers. Both McDonald's and homemade burgers, however, dehydrated quickly in a dry environment, shrinking and hardening at about the same rate.
In other words: the notion that McDonald's food is so heavily processed that it won’t rot is bunk. What about the idea that McDonald's, after recent efforts to make their menu more healthy, is better for you than health-centric brands like Chipotle? That’s what the Atlantic claimed in a 2010 op-ed. A 2014 study of adolescent fast-food habits found that teens in LA ordered just as many calories at Subway as they usually did at McDonald's.
The short answer: it’s complicated. The Atlantic article looks at calories, sodium and saturated fat without taking into account portion size - the Chipotle burrito weighs a lot more and is closer to a complete meal. As is the case at Subway, Chipotle consumers can choose what goes into their order; it’s fairly easy to opt out of different ingredients, which can quickly make an order healthier. And while the McDonald’s Big Mac has fewer calories than the Chipotle burrito, the real kicker comes in the sides - McDonald’s fries are calorie-rich and really high in sodium, and their salads often come with decadent dressings.
As of 2012, McDonald’s menus now also include calorie counts. That’s not a complete nutritional picture, but it’s useful information, and research by Stanford shows that it has a tangible effect - consumers who order high-calorie foods at McDonald’s lowered their average calories-per-transaction by a full quarter.
How healthy McDonalds is, then, involves what and how you order. Fooducate has a ranking of different McDonald’s products by healthiness, linked below: their #1 offender is the Buttermilk Chicken Sandwich, which has nearly eight hundred calories and more sodium by itself than an adult needs in a day. Their best is the Big Mac - while still high in sodium and calories, it’s got about the ratio of carbohydrates, fats and proteins that your body needs.
And their McNuggets? McDonald’s has been dogged by rumors for years that they’re made with “pink slime” that is, at best, only half chicken. They pushed back in 2014 with an ad campaign featuring a host from Mythbusters touring one of the meat-processing facilities where nuggets are made: no pink slime, the video says. But McDonald’s has also been slammed by websites like Livestrong for the additives we know are in chicken nuggets. The worst is likely TBHQ, which consumer advocates claim can cause all sorts of problems, but there’s a whole host of food-like stabilizers and preservatives in there as well.
Or was, at least. McDonald’s has pledged to phase TBHQ out, alongside sodium phosphate and maltodextrin. These changes don’t do much to drop the overall sodium and fat content of chicken nuggets, but they’re steps in a healthier direction.
Another change announced in August of 2016 is the discontinuation of antibiotics in their chicken nuggets. That’s a good thing - feeding chickens antibiotics indiscriminately allows McDonald’s to keep those chickens in brutal, inhumane conditions. It also contributes to antibiotic resistance -- a growing problem which leads to the creation of hard- or impossible-to-treat “superbugs.”
Unfortunately, McDonald’s has no plans to discontinue the use of antibiotics everywhere. They’re focused narrowly on the chickens that they raise for their chicken nuggets. The bacon, beef, and eggs at McDonald’s are still made with animals raised on large doses of antibiotics, and McDonald’s has so far refused to set a timeline for when we can expect that to change.
McDonald’s has a terrible reputation as an employer as well. In the United States, they’ve been the focal point of a broad-base workers’ struggle for a living wage of $15 dollars an hour. McDonald’s has been steadfast in resisting those demands - even as they’ve been made law in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles. In the United Kingdom, McDonald’s is consistently rated as the worst company to work for on employer review site Glassdoor. As part-timers, most employees have little to no vacation time or benefits.
McDonald’s has also rightfully faced criticism for their environmental practices. In response, gotten better about recycling and pledge to disconnect their beef supplies from deforestation for cattle ranching - a practice that’s devastated ecologically delicate and biologically rich areas like the Amazon. These steps, while marking some progress, don’t redeem McDonald’s entirely - five and a half million head of cattle are still needed to satisfy their American market alone, introducing millions of pounds of carbon into the atmosphere, sucking up way more water and land than other protein sources, and helping to drive climate destabilization.
Possible short-term side effects
Possible long-term side effects
- fatty acid accumulation in liver
- increased cholesterol
- increased blood pressure
- heart attack, stroke
- mood swings
- decreased libido
Ingredients to be aware of
- sodium phosphate (to be phased out)
- tbhq (to be phased out)
- maltodextrin (to be phased out)
- bleached flour
- food starch-modified
- partially hydrogenated soybean oil
- cottonseed oil with glycerides
- saturated fat
- many others
- cheap pricing