By now you’ve probably heard the story. An Alaskan chiropractor named Jennifer Lovdahl shared a Facebook post containing an alleged photo of a 6-year-old McDonald’s Happy Meal, saying it had been sitting in her office all that time and had not rotted, molded, or decomposed. An order of chicken nuggets and fries was pictured alongside a receipt dated Jan. 8, 2010.
The photo was posted on Feb. 3 and was shared hundreds of thousands of times, going viral within days. In the caption, Lovdahl claims she kept the Happy Meal as part of an experiment to prove to her patients that McDonald’s food is unhealthy, and she invites her friends and their children to steer clear of fast food.
The reasoning? Well, apparently McDonald’s doesn’t decompose because it is full of disgusting, harmful “chemicals” like preservatives, and it is somehow “unnatural” because you know, natural food is supposed to rot.
“We did this experiment to show our patients how unhealthy this ‘food’ is,” Lovdahl wrote. “Especially our growing children! There are so many chemicals in this food! Choose real food! Apples, bananas, carrots, celery…”
This is not the first (and sadly, probably won’t be the last) time someone has shared a story like this to perpetuate the tabloid-worthy “McDonald’s food never decomposes” myth. But there’s more to the story than meets the eye — here’s why the science doesn’t add up in what seems to be the viral health scare story of the week.
Firstly, of course there are “chemicals” in McDonald’s food. Technically speaking, just about everything is a chemical, and chemicals are present in all foods, including apples, bananas, carrots, and celery. But of course, when the fans of the “appeal to nature” argument use the word, what they really mean is what they call “artificial” chemicals — that is, food additives, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, pesticides, and so forth.
Fear of these so-called artificial chemicals in food has driven many a marketing campaign, with foods being advertised as “100% natural” or even the scientifically impossible “chemical-free.” People have even gone as far as to say that fast food has “no nutrition,” a demonstrably false statement, or to allege that it’s on par with eating poison. As Rational Wiki aptly points out, this kind of “appeal to nature” argument has a lot of emotion behind it, but very few facts.
“This appeal makes the assumption that anything ‘natural’ is good and anything ‘unnatural’ is bad. As anyone with a knowledge of chemistry will know, the line between natural and unnatural chemicals is a blurred one, or even totally non-existent. Furthermore, there are many natural compounds which are very toxic (such as botulinum toxin, strychnine, lead acetate, asbestos, snake and spider venom, cardiac glycosides, cyanide, hexavalent chromium compounds…). Many industrially important chemicals are produced via natural (biological) processes, such as fermentation to produce ethanol and monosodium glutamate, or extracted from plants and bacteria, such as caffeine extracted from coffee beans. Equally, these substances can be synthesised in a lab and purified in the same way. Despite absolutely no detectable differences between purified natural products and their synthesised counterparts, chemophobia postulates that the ‘artificial’ one is worse.”
Secondly, the reason why a Happy Meal wouldn’t spoil or visibly mold after six years has been well known for a long time. The post notably gives no information about how the food was stored; however, we can assume the Happy Meal was simply left out due to the shriveled appearance of the nuggets and fries. When food is cooked it loses moisture, and being allowed to dry out further dehydrates it. Without water, it creates an environment unfavorable for mold growth.
The 2004 film Super Size Me famously included a sequence in which director Morgan Spurlock performs a similar experiment with McDonald’s burgers. During his experiment, it was sealed in a jar, and notably does grow mold. This is because food absorbs water in a sealed environment like a plastic bag or glass jar, which contains enough moisture for the food to spoil and mold. It has little to do with scary, undefined “chemicals.”
Serious Eats conducted their own elaborate and detailed experiment of this type, outlined in painstaking detail and with pictures here, which concludes with “strong evidence” that “the burger doesn’t rot because it’s [sic] small size and relatively large surface area help it to lose moisture very fast.” I highly encourage all readers to check it out.
— McDonald's (@McDonalds) February 8, 2016
Finally, the question needs to be asked: why exactly should it be a bad thing for food to never rot, mold, or spoil? Humanity has spent so many years perfecting the art of preserving food for human consumption and preventing the growth of mold spores. It seems absurd that the fact that our food lasts longer than ever should be viewed as a negative thing.
As the Telegraph reported, far from being a “chemical-filled” food with “no nutrition,” the McDouble burger may actually be the cheapest, most nutritious food in human history up to this point.
“The double cheeseburger provides 390 calories, 23 grams of protein – half a daily serving – seven per cent of daily fibre, 19 grams of fat and 20 per cent of daily calcium, all for between $1 and $2, or 65p and £1.30.”
Pseudoscience isn’t just false; it isn’t just potentially harmful — it also provokes fear-mongering and trivializes several thousand years of human development.
Just one of the many reason we don't count calories in traditional Chinese medicine. https://t.co/bRVuI46APl
— ZhenTea (@ZhenTea2014) February 10, 2016
[Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images]