A Halloween Horror Story; or, What’s Really in a Happy Meal

A Halloween Horror Story; or, What’s Really in a Happy Meal

Even though I’m open to a bit of a cheateroo from time to time, generally, I try to avoid eating processed foods where I can. Don’t get me wrong – I’m nowhere even approaching perfect – but as a rule, most of the stuff I eat is made up of ingredients I can actually spell. And most of the time, I’ll have put those ingredients together myself, in the comfort of my own kitchen.

Before, though, I used to absolutely love takeaway food. Pizza Hut, fish and chips, curry, Chinese… Man. I just loved ’em. And one of my favourite treats, especially on a cold winter morning before an early shift in my old job, would be a McDonalds. Mmmm. Ol’ Ronald could really take the sting out of a 6am start.

My good friend Barry Mountfort sent me a link to this lovely article about a Happy Meal that was left on a kitchen counter for a whole six months… Without decomposing. At all.

Here’s Day 1:

And here’s Day 171:

That’s 171 days of… Nothing. Now, think about it – if you leave your fruit bowl untouched for a week, some of it’s going to have seen better days. Two weeks, and it’s going to be kinda gross to look at. Three weeks, and I’m willing to bet you just won’t want that crap around any more, because it’ll smell like something that’s died. Three weeks is 21 days in total.

Over the course of 171 days, on the other hand, this Happy Meal just sat there, stubbornly refusing to show any signs of change or life. Sally Davies, who did “The Happy Meal Project” to win a bet with a friend, pointed out that ‘the first thing that struck me on day two of the experiment was that it no longer emitted any smell… And then the second point of note was that on the second day, my dogs stopped circling the shelf it was sitting on trying to see what was up there.’

My parents have a dog, and I can tell you – if there’s any meat-based product on the counter, no matter how long it’s there, I’d be willing to bet she won’t be satisfied until somebody’s eaten it. Preferably her. Now, admittedly my folks won’t leave a steak out on the side for two solid days, but that’s ’cause it’s a real food that would rot. Like it’s supposed to. Dogs losing interest in this burger is a very bad sign.

Anyway, with this in mind, I set about thinking about what’s in McDonalds food. Eventually, I found an ingredients list on their website, and decided to make a note of what I found. I looked for a plain ol’ cheeseburger, with a side of fries and a small strawberry milkshake – although admittedly, I’d have definitely gone for a Quarter Pounder meal with extra EVERYTHING in this situation, but I was trying to keep it simple for the sake of my experiment here. Also – I’m not sure, but I don’t think we get the whipped cream and cherry on the top of the shake here in the UK – but it’s all I could find, so it’ll have to do.

So, a cheeseburger is made up of:

100% Beef Patty, Regular Bun, Pasteurized Process American Cheese, Ketchup, Mustard, Pickle Slices, Onions

Okay, nice and simple. No worries. But… Wait. What’s in each of those?

Turns out you have to scroll down and search for each of these things individually to find out. So, here’s the breakdown:

Regular Bun

Enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar, yeast, soybean oil and/or canola oil, contains 2% or less of the following: salt, wheat gluten, calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride, dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, datem, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated monoglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, enzymes, guar gum, calcium peroxide), sorbic acid, calcium propionate and/or sodium propionate (preservatives), soy lecithin.

Pasteurized Process American Cheese

Milk, water, milkfat, cheese culture, sodium citrate, salt, citric acid, sorbic acid (preservative), sodium phosphate, color added, lactic acid, acetic acid, enzymes, soy lecithin (added for slice separation).


Tomato concentrate from red ripe tomatoes, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, salt, natural flavors (vegetable source).


Distilled vinegar, water, mustard seed, salt, turmeric, paprika, spice extractive.

Pickle Slices

Cucumbers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, alum, potassium sorbate (preservative), natural flavors (plant source), polysorbate 80, extractives of turmeric (color).


Chopped onions.

Add on a side of French Fries:

Potatoes, vegetable oil (canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor [wheat and milk derivatives]*, citric acid [preservative]), dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate (maintain color), salt. Prepared in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent.
*(Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients).

And a tasty Strawberry Shake (12oz cup):

Vanilla Reduced Fat Ice Cream, Strawberry Shake Syrup, Whipped Cream, Maraschino Cherry

At least this one’s simple. Oh wait.

Vanilla Reduced Fat Ice Cream:

Milk, sugar, cream, nonfat milk solids, corn syrup solids, mono- and diglycerides, guar gum, dextrose, sodium citrate, artificial vanilla flavor, sodium phosphate, carrageenan, disodium phosphate, cellulose gum, vitamin A palmitate.

Strawberry Shake Syrup:

Sugar, water, corn syrup, strawberries, high fructose corn syrup, natural (botanical source) and artificial flavor, pectin, citric acid, potassium sorbate (preservative), caramel color, calcium chloride, red 40.

Whipped Cream:

Cream, nonfat milk, water, corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, mono-and diglycerides, carrageenan, polysorbate 80, beta carotene (color), natural (dairy and vegetable source) and artificial flavor, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E) to protect flavor. Whipping Propellant (nitrous oxide).

Maraschino Cherry:

Cherries, water, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, malic acid, citric acid, natural (plant source) and artificial flavors, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (preservatives), red 40, sulfur dioxide as preservative (contains sulfites).

Now, I’ll be honest – I didn’t take all that in on a first reading, and I don’t expect you to either. Lists like this are just boring, and I tend to zone out when people bring big ugly science words near me. I’m an arts student. That’s how I roll. But it does seem to me that the only things that make any sense at all, ingredient-wise, are the mustard and the onions. Everything else is pretty much made of a load of things that sound… Well… Nasty.

You’ll notice that “high fructose corn syrup” pops up a lot. Here in the UK, that’s referred to as glucose-fructose syrup – and it’s in a heck of a lot of processed foods. I refer you to a 2010 Princeton University study on HFCS, which concluded:

“Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn’t true, at least under the conditions of our tests,” said psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction. “When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese — every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don’t see this; they don’t all gain extra weight.”

It’s been linked to high blood pressure; leptin resistance (leptin being the useful little hormone that regulates appetite); insulin resistance (also known as metabolic  syndrome, which increases your risk of stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes)…

Basically, it’s not something you want to be eating.

In addition to that, TBHQ, used in the oil your fries are Frenched in, is rather more trick than treat – it’s a form of butane. As in lighter fluid. It’s also used as a corrosion inhibitor in biodiesel, a fixative in perfume, and is added to varnishes, lacquers, resins, and oil field additives. And the anti-foaming agent? That can be used to make some forms of breast implants, and can be used to treat head lice.

As if that weren’t scary enough, in this meal, you’re looking at a grand total of 1240 calories, 49g fat, 170g carbs, 30g protein, and 1160mg sodium in one meal – made up mostly of stuff that in all honesty, just isn’t food. It’s something you can eat, granted – but it’s not food in any real sense.

For me, one of the big reasons I’ve had so much success in losing the weight is because I redefined my idea of food, and the relationship that food had with my body. Real food provides nourishment and satiety – whereas a whole bunch of chemicals? Not so much. I’m sure I’m not alone in having stuffed my face with fast food, only to find myself still craving something else to eat. That’s got to be a sign that these things aren’t giving your body what it needs.

The thing is, just because all these chemicals are considered safe for human consumption doesn’t mean they’re good for you. It just means they’re not present in high enough quantities to kill you right away. Personally, I’d rather try – 80% of the time, at least – to stick to stuff that definitely won’t make me ill, rather than that hasn’t been proven to yet.

However – an addendum. There is definitely a time and a place this kind of Frankenfood. In the event of nuclear holocaust, zombie attack, or alien invasion, you’ll find me eating McDonalds and only McDonalds – because it seems like that stuff will survive anything.

So… Happy Halloween everybody!

13 thoughts on “A Halloween Horror Story; or, What’s Really in a Happy Meal”

  • Have you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan? He goes into a lot of this, and what goes into making that whole meal, including what those caws are eating. Its scary stuff, but enlightening.

    • I haven’t! I bought Fast Food Nation a couple of days ago but I haven’t had the chance to read it yet… I shall definitely add that to my reading list! Thanks for the tip 🙂

  • I’m just going to pick out one other ingredient because there is just so much wrong with these ingredients we’d be here all week writing up about how bad they are!

    ALUM in the pickles is also: A coagulant, used for shrinking hemorrhoids, underarm deodorants, a fire retardant, tanning leather and taxidermy. Alum was used by bakers in England during the 1800s to make bread whiter. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1875 prevented this. So why is it back in the foods people eat? It’s just a drop in the toxic ocean of other dreadful substances in the processed food industry. Beware!

  • Also I think in a zombie apocalypse a diet consisting exclusively of McDonalds might just make us unappetizing to zombies. Or at the very least, they will get a serious indigestion if they eat us.

    Great post! I occasionally succumb to temptation and pop into a Burger King for a burger and fries, but do it more than on occasion and I immediately start breaking out, feeling lethargic and craving copious amounts of carbs. As you say, no treat, just trick 🙁

  • Fast Food Nation is some scary reading…It did put me off fast food for a long time but I’ve fallen off the wagon again…think a second read would be in order!

  • While I can agree that McDonalds IS horrid, I hope you guys realize this info is very old and since SuperSize Me, the entire McDonalds food line changed.

    • The Happy Meal story is relatively old – but the ingredients I’ve analysed are all from the current McDonalds menu. Dread to think what was in there before!

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