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  • Writer's pictureAnita Hollerer-Squire

Big Mac - the good, the bad & the ugly

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

McDonald's - the epitome of American fast food. Pretty hard to find a town that doesn't have a McDonald's - and that's not just in America, but most countries. What is it that makes McDonald so popular? Surely it can't be the quality of their food. I can only assume that it's due to convenience, price and them luring kids in with toys and their play structures. When my daughter was a little girl, she got excited every time she saw a McDonald's playground. Luckily, she never liked the taste of their food.

I needed to do some research into some ingredients for my studies and decided to use the Big Mac as an example. You will probably never touch a McDonald's burger again after reading this. Makes me wonder how many people actually know what they are putting into their bodies.

So sit back and be astonished what this burger consists of - reading this will take awhile.

What's really in a Big Mac?

All ingredients were taken from the McDonald's US website.


Ingredients: Enriched Unbleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Soybean Oil, Contains 2% or Less: Salt, Wheat Gluten, Sesame Seeds, Leavening (Calcium Sulfate, Ammonium Sulfate), May Contain One or More Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, DATEM, Ascorbic Acid, Mono and Diglycerides, Monocalcium Phosphate, Enzymes, Calcium Peroxide), Calcium Propionate (Preservative).

Let's take a closer look into all those ingredients:

Enriched Unbleached Flour: this is a refined flour - much of the fiber, iron and B vitamins get removed in the refining process and a few of them get added back in later.

What you need to know about white flours:

Commercially grown wheat is sprayed with hormones and pesticides and the bins in which the harvested wheat is stored have been coated with insecticides. If bugs appear on the wheat in storage, they fumigate the grain.

A whole grain of wheat (wheat berry) is made up of three layers:

  • The bran - (the hard outer shell) offers most of the fiber.

  • The germ - is the part that is rich in nutrients

  • The endosperm- is the largest part of the grain and is mostly starch.

White flour is made from the endosperm only, whereas whole-wheat flour combines all three parts of the wheat berry.

The endosperm is ground by high-speed steel rollers using high temperature and what remains is a white flour that is nearly all starch and which has lost most of it's nutritional value.

Most of the nutrients found in wheat are absent from white flour. Enriched flour contains only a few lab-grade vitamins.

Also, when your body processes white flour, it processes it the same way as sugar. Your body will experience a sugar spike, and then drop (white flour has a high glycemic index).

Bleached flour is even worse for you, as on top of it all it is whitened with a chlorine gas bath (chlorine oxide).

Unbleached organic all-purpose flour is your best bet when it comes to all-purpose/white flour. Organic guarantees that a product has not been genetically modified and has been grown under the organic guidelines for allowable pesticides and fertilizers.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): High fructose corn syrup is an industrial food product and far from “natural”. It is extracted from corn stalks (most of which are genetically engineered). The sugars are extracted through a chemical process resulting in a chemically and biologically novel compound called HFCS.

Regular cane sugar (sucrose) is made of two-sugar molecules bound tightly together– glucose and fructose in equal amounts. The enzymes in your digestive tract must break down the sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are then absorbed into the body. HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, in a 55-45 fructose to glucose ratio in an unbound form. Since there is no chemical bond between them, no digestion is required - so they are more rapidly absorbed into your blood stream. Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol) this is why it is the major cause of liver damage and can cause a condition called “fatty liver” which affects millions of people. The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin – our body’s major fat storage hormone. This can lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more.

HFCS is cheaper than sugar because of the government farm bill corn subsidies in the U.S.

According to Dr. Hyman, a family physician and best selling author, HFCS also contains contaminants including mercury that are not regulated or measured by the FDA. For more information on HFCS, read Dr. Hyman's blog here.

Soybean oil: To start with, the majority of soy grown is genetically modified. As soybean oil is too unstable to be used in food manufacturing, part of it is hydrogenated (which means that hydrogen gas is forced into the oil at high pressure). This makes the oil more stable and raises its melting point (so it can be used for high temperature cooking) and it prolongs its shelf life. It also means that due to the partial hydrogenation process soybean oil contains trans fats (bad fats).

Fat in soybean oil is mainly omega 6 fat. We do need omega 6 in our diet, but because omega 6 is in nearly every animal food, many plants as well as excessively used in most processed foods, we generally get enough of omega 6.

Not all soybean oil is hydrogenated and “fully hydrogenated” is different from “partially hydrogenated.” The latter contains trans fat, while the former does not.

According to Dr. Mercola, the omega 6 found in soybean oil promotes chronic inflammation in our bodies, which is an underlying issue for virtually all chronic diseases. To read Dr. Mercola's full article on soybean oil, click here.

Leavening (Calcium Sulfate, Ammonium Sulfate) is a substance used in doughs and batters that causes them to rise. As a food additive, ammonium sulfate is considered generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and in the European Union it is designated by the E number E517. It is used as an acidity regulator in flours and breads.

Dough Conditioners:

Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate is a chemical better known as SSL, is a food additive used to improve the mix tolerance and volume of processed foods. Considered safe by the FDA.

DATEM is a diacetyl tartaric acid manufactured through chemical synthesis. Datem is widely used as emulsifier. It is affirmed by US FDA as generally recognized as safe and widely accepted as safe food additive in many countries with E number E472e.

Ascorbic acid (E300) is one commonly-used artificial additive. Ascorbic acid also known as Vitamin C, essential for growth, healthy teeth, gums, bones, skin and blood vessels and aiding the absorption of iron, is found naturally in many fresh fruits and vegetables. It is commercially manufactured by several different methods, however one in particular should be noted. This involves a fermentation process using the genetic material of two enzymes from different bacteria being transferred to a single bacterium - so it is genetic modification.

Mono and Diglycerides act as emulsifiers in bread, pulling together the water- and oil-based ingredients that have trouble combining on their own. This makes bread softer, improves the texture of the dough and prevents staling. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring that all food manufacturers list a food's trans fat content on the label. This law applies to lipids, like triglycerides, but not to emulsifiers like mono- and diglycerides. Therefore, even though mono- and diglycerides may contain trans-fatty acids, they do not fall under these labeling requirements. This means a food may be labeled as possessing "0% trans fat" yet still contain trans-fatty acids from mono- and diglycerides.

Monocalcium Phosphate is a non-toxic chemical compound that consists mostly of phosphorus and calcium. It is artificially made and it's used as a leavening agent -meaning it is used in dough or batter to cause the mixture to raise. Considered safe.

Enzymes allow manufacturers to pump up loaf volume significantly, adjust texture, produce a better crust color and prolong shelf life.

The chemistry set of additives has, over the past fifteen years, been largely replaced by enzymes. You won’t see them listed on bread labels, because the law treats them as ‘processing aids’, which do not have to be declared. Enzymes can be allergens and should be identified on labels in the same way as the major allergen groups. Failure to label enzymes prevents people from making informed ethical choices over what they eat; many enzymes are now genetically modified and at least one listed in a standard work on the subject is derived from the pancreas of pigs.

Most worryingly, recent research indicates that one enzyme quite widely used in the food industry - transglutaminase - can generate in the human gut the epitope of gliadin that is toxic to people with coeliac disease and other intolerances.

Calcium Peroxide is a chemical used in baking as a processing aid and whitening. Europe and China banned benzoyl peroxide and calcium peroxide, which whiten flour through oxidation. When ingested in large amounts, the chemicals are harmful to the respiratory system and can cause sensitisation.

Calcium Propionate is a preservative added to bread products to prevent mold growth. Calcium and sodium propionate have the potential to permanently damage your stomach lining by exacerbating gastritis and inducing severe ulcers. You should avoid fast-food products that have a higher ratio of calcium propionate, such as buns, pastries and pizza.

Beef Patty

100% Pure Beef

Even so the "pink slime" is not longer used, this patty still is far from "pure". The meat comes from cows that were treated with antibiotics and other medications to prevent diseases. Cows will also have been given growth hormones for faster growth and they were fed feed that was grown with pesticides. Not so pure after all….

Big Mac Sauce

Ingredients: Soybean Oil, Pickle Relish (Diced Pickles, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sugar, Vinegar, Corn Syrup, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Spice Extractives, Polysorbate 80), Distilled Vinegar, Water, Egg Yolks, Onion Powder, Mustard Seed, Salt, Spices, Propylene Glycol Alginate, Sodium Benzoate (Preservative), Mustard Bran, Sugar, Garlic Powder, Vegetable Protein (Hydrolyzed Corn, Soy and Wheat), Caramel Color, Extractives of Paprika, Soy Lecithin, Turmeric (Color), Calcium Disodium EDTA (Protect Flavor).

Soybean oil (as above - same as in the bun)

High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sugar, Corn Syrup - lots of sugar (HFCS see above)

Calcium Chloride is a dough-strengthening and -raising agent, as well as a preservative. It has a low toxicity rating, but ingestion can still lead to many problems. This is due to a process called hydrolysis, which occurs when calcium chloride reacts with water and creates excess heat as a byproduct. Ingestion may seriously irritate the moist linings of the body, such as those in the nostrils, mouth and throat, lips, eyelids and ears. Ingestion of larger amounts may induce gastrointestinal upset, vomiting and abdominal pain.

Xanthan Gum is used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in food. Considered safe to eat.

Potassium Sorbate is used as a food preservative and is now produced synthetically. Its anti-microbial properties stop the growth and spread of harmful bacteria and molds. A 2010 study published in “Toxicology in Vitro” found that exposure of human blood cells to potassium sorbate in the laboratory caused damage in DNA.

Spice Extractives, Polysorbate 80 This is a lesser known synthetic compound, also known as Tween 80. It is an amber/golden-colored viscous liquid. It is made from polyethoxylated sorbitan (chemical compounds derived from the dehydration of sugar alcohol) and oleic acid, a fatty acid found in animal and vegetable fats. Polysorbate 80 and other emulsifiers commonly found in pharmaceuticals, vaccines, cosmetics and many foods have been found to negatively affect the immune system and affect fertility. Researchers writing in Nature have now found they are also altering our gut microbiota composition and driving metabolic changes that lead to inflammatory conditions and obesity.

Propylene Glycol Alginate (PGA) is an additive used mainly as a thickening agent in certain types of food. It is made from the kelp plant or from certain kinds of algae, which is processed and transformed into a yellowish, grainy chemical powder. The powder is then added to foods that require thickening. It has been used for many years as a food preservative, and many food manufacturing companies use it in common items.

There are three primary reasons for using propylene glycol alginate. First, it thickens liquid but it also stabilizes it. For example, the foam in beer can be stabilized by using this chemical as can fruit juices or foamy dairy products. It is also considered an emulsifier, which means that it keeps foods fresher because it acts as a preservative. Certain foods have a tendency to change color or consistency over a period of time, for example, and this chemical helps to slow down that process.

Most types of gel-like foods, including yogurt, jellies and jams, ice cream, and salad dressing, contain this additive. Certain condiments and chewing gum also contain it, as do some kinds of cosmetics. Although it is considered a safe additive, there have been reports of negative side effects. It can produce stomach upset and nausea, whether it's ingested or used on the skin as a cosmetic.

Sodium Benzoate is a preservative. It is a synthetic chemical produced when benzoic acid, which is found naturally in some fruits and spices, is combined with sodium hydroxide. Sodium benzoate is a sodium salt that is present at extremely low levels in berries, apples, plums, cinnamon, and several other natural foods. There’s nothing scary about the chemical in these items. But lab-synthesized sodium benzoate (and its close relative, benzoic acid) are a different story. When these preservatives are added to foods and to the interior of metal cans that contain beverages or liquid foods, they can have a detrimental effect on your health. For example, a small percentage of people are hypersensitive to sodium benzoate and can experience asthmatic attacks, hives, or other allergic reactions when they consume the preservative. A more common problem, however, is the combination of sodium benzoate and citric acid and/or ascorbic acid (vitamin C). When these ingredients get together, they form benzene, a cancer-causing chemical associated with leukemia and other blood cancers. Manufacturers also add sodium benzoate to health and beauty products such as mouthwash, shampoo, body lotions, and deodorant to prevent bacteria from contaminating these items.

Vegetable Protein (Hydrolyzed Corn, Soy and Wheat) is a flavor enhancer. It is produced by taking one of these constituents (soy, wheat, corn or whey), boiling it in hydrochloric acid and then neutralizing the solution with sodium hydroxide. This process is called hydrolysis. After hydrolysis, one of the amino acids left is glutamic acid. You are probably most familiar with glutamic acid in the form of monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein contains 10-30 percent MSG.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that is “generally recognized as safe,” the use of MSG remains controversial. Since the 1960s, increasing anecdotal evidence and reports from consumers have linked MSG to symptoms such as headaches, sweating, numbness, rapid heartbeat, nausea and weakness. People who are especially sensitive to MSG can also have reactions to the reduced amounts of MSG found in hydrolyzed vegetable protein.

Another concern that should be raised about HVP is that it is most commonly produced using genetically modified products, such as soy and corn. GMO foods are still new in our food system and very little research has been done to show the safety of these products to our long-term health.

While everyone should avoid HVP, people who are sensitive to gluten, soy or milk should be especially careful since HVP is often produced using these foods as a base.

Caramel Color is an additive and is also commonly used to darken the color of breads or baked goods. Health concerns related to consumption of caramel coloring are due to certain contaminants, namely 2- and 4-methylimidazole (2- or 4-MEI), that may be produced as a result of processing. The U.S. National Toxicology Program found that these chemicals cause cancer in mice, and the World Health Organization considers them “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Extractives of Paprika are used to add color and flavor. This can be natural or artificial. The extractive form of paprika is oleoresin prepared from dried, seeds and ground pods using either hexane or ethylene dichloride. Artificial extracts are flavors that do not necessarily use any ingredients directly from a source named for the extract but instead used combinations of ingredients to arrive at a flavor representative of the named food extract. Who can tell what’s in that one?

Soy Lecithin is a food additive. It’s used primarily as an emulsifier. To make soy lecithin, soybean oil is extracted from the raw soybeans using a chemical solvent (usually hexane). Then, the crude soy oil goes through a ‘degumming’ process, wherein water is mixed thoroughly with the soy oil until the lecithin becomes hydrated and separates from the oil. The lecithin is then dried and occasionally bleached using hydrogen peroxide. Soy lecithin likely contains pesticides and solvents and is most likely produced from genetically modified soy.

Calcium Disodium EDTA (Protect Flavor) Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, known as EDTA, is a chemical salt used to separate heavy metals from dyes and other substances. One form, known as calcium disodium EDTA, appears in foods and cosmetic products to prevent air from spoiling them by introducing unwanted oxygen into the products' molecular structures. Calcium disodium EDTA is also used in alternative medicine, both as a chelating agent to remove heavy metals from the body and to remove plaque from arteries, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Since calcium disodium EDTA is toxic to humans in high amounts, always consult a physician before trying any EDTA-related therapy.

Pasteurized processed American Cheese

Ingredients: Milk, Cream, Water, Cheese Culture, Sodium Citrate, Contains 2% or Less of: Salt, Citric Acid, Sodium Phosphate, Sorbic Acid (Preservative), Lactic Acid, Acetic Acid, Enzymes, Sodium Pyrophosphate, Natural Flavor (Dairy Source), Color Added, Soy Lecithin (Added for Slice Separation).

American cheese has so many additives, it is illegal to label it as “cheese” in many countries, including America. According to the FDA, when a product contains more than 51% additional ingredients, it is no longer itself. Processed cheese product isn’t cheese.

Milk, Cream, Water

Cheese Culture are bacteria needed for the production of all types of cheese products. The bacteria type will determine the cheese’s gastronomic properties (smell, taste, texture).

Sodium Citrate (E311) is a food additive used to enhance flavor. It is the sodium salt of citric acid, it has a sour taste. Deemed safe.

Citric Acid is both naturally occurring and a common additive that serves as a flavoring agent and preservative. Your cells also make citric acid. The citric acid you consume is neither good nor bad for you, and the citric acid you make is essential to life.

Sodium Phosphate is a generic term that may refer to any sodium salt of phosphoric acid. They’re commonly added to food and may serve a variety of purposes. Sodium phosphates have been well studied and are generally considered safe when used as a food additive.

Sorbic Acid is a natural compound that is also made synthetically. Commercially produced sorbic acid is made synthetically and is thus an artificial preservative. It's added to a variety of foods to preserve freshness. Considered generally recognized as safe by the FDA. Sorbic acid has proven vital to our ability to store food and transport it across long distances. Allergies are rare and usually very mild, but exposure to undiluted sorbic acid might carry some risks.

Lactic Acid Our bodies form lactic acid naturally. It forms as the body converts carbohydrates into energy during periods of low oxygen levels, which can occur with intense physical exercise. In foods, lactic acid either occurs naturally, or a synthesized form is added as a flavoring or preservative agent. Considered safe to eat.

Acetic Acid is the sour-tasting compound that gives that characteristic tang to vinegar, pickles, and sourdough bread. Exposure to industrial compounds that contain acetic acid, which is used in paint, pesticides, plastics, and textiles, is hazardous to your health. However, acetic acid is generally recognized as safe for use in foods. Acetic acid has been a staple of folk medicine for centuries all over the world. Results of a research study in Japan suggest that acetic acid may help control blood pressure and fat accumulation.

Enzymes (see above - same as in the bun)

Sodium Pyrophosphate is an edible phosphoric salt that helps create leavening used for baking, such as baking powder, and prevents food discoloration. In its bulk state, such as at the manufacturing laboratory, the acidic nature of sodium acid pyrophosphate may be very hazardous upon skin or eye contact, inhalation or ingestion, causing severe inflammation. You are more likely to exceed safe phosphorus intakes from high-phosphorus foods, such as cheeseburgers – which supplies 353 milligrams of phosphorus (the suggested daily intake of phosphorus for people 18 and older is 700 milligrams). Overconsumption of phosphorus-containing foods and additives can result in elevated blood phosphorus levels, which may contribute to osteoporosis. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers if safe for human consumption.

Natural Flavor (Dairy Source) The food industry is not required to tell us what exactly is in “natural flavors” they use in food. Federal guidelines in the labeling of its food products, which permit beef or other meat flavoring to be generically described as "natural." “Natural flavors” are typically highly processed chemicals which, by themselves or in combination with other naturally derived chemicals, impart a flavor to prepared food. They are only called “natural” because the original source of the flavor additive is not man-made.

According to FDA, “The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”

Since food manufacturers do not need to disclose the ingredients of the “natural flavors” added, it can pretty much include anything, even something to which you are allergic.

Color Added This is probably annatto (E160b) – a natural red food coloring from the pulp of crushed seeds of tropical achiote trees.

Soy Lecithin (Added for slice separation. see above - same as in the sauce)

Pickle slices:

Ingredients: Cucumbers, Water, Distilled Vinegar, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Alum, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), Natural Flavors (Plant Source), Polysorbate 80, Extractives of Turmeric (Color).

Calcium Chloride (see above - same as in the sauce)

Alum is a salt which results from a chemical reaction between an alkaline metal such as sodium, potassium or ammonia with a trivalent metal like aluminum, iron or chromium. Alum is used in pickling recipes as a preservative and to maintain crispness. Alum for pickling is approved by the U.S. FDA as a food additive, but in large quantities (more than an ounce) it becomes toxic. If good quality produce and modern canning methods are employed, there is no need to use alum to bolster the crispness of the pickle.

Potassium Sorbate (see above - same as in the sauce)

Natural Flavors (Plant Source) Added flavoring, both natural and artificial, could contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients. And all of the extra ingredients in flavors often aren’t as innocent as we think. The mixture will often have some solvent and preservatives — and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume [of the flavoring]. In the end product, it’s a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients.

Polysorbate 80 (see above - same as in the sauce)

Extractives of Turmeric (Color) Artificial extracts are flavors that do not necessarily use any ingredients directly from a source named for the extract but instead used combinations of ingredients to arrive at a flavor representative of the named food extract – so who knows what’s in it.....


So, there you have it - the good, the bad and the ugly. Well, there is really not much good about it at all. A lot of ingredients for what should be a simple burger. With all those artificial preservatives, it is no wonder you can keep it for weeks or even months and it will still look exactly the same as the day you bought it.

Eating this kind of food on a regular basis (and I don't just mean burgers, but all fast-food) is very likely to make you fat and sick.

If you think the burgers are more nutritious in other countries - sorry to say, they are not. The main difference between the Big Mac in America and Big Mac's in the UK, Australia and New Zealand is that instead of using high fructose corn syrup, they use sugar and instead of soybean oil they use canola oil - which is not much better.

Sources: Mc Donalds, Food and Drug Administration, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Complete Food and Nutrition Guide,,,,, Food Safety News,,, The UK food guide

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