Friday, March 26, 2010

What is the Shelf Life of a Happy Meal?

I love food. Of course I love eating food, but I love cooking, shopping, and chopping food. I also like thinking about the ethics, economics, and politics of food. I know a number of authors have pointed to the problems with fast food, if it's food at all, but I always like a visual representation of some of these issues.

Nonna Joann's blog post about buying and keeping a McDonald's Happy Meal is a perfect example. She did her own experiment on how a Happy Meal would decompose over the course of a year. She bravely sets the Meal in her cubicle at work. Fortunately for her, it doesn't really decompose. She claims it doesn't even smell. The latter is difficult for me to believe, though, because I can smell McDonald's food three blocks away -- they like it that way. I was shocked by how good the meal looked after 365 days. It looked good enough for Joann to throw a birthday party for the Happy Meal rather than throw it out. Our food, real food, doesn't last a year in a freezer, let alone a year on a shelf in an office.

What's in a Happy Meal? According to McDonald's own website, the McNuggets alone in a Happy Meal contain the following ingredients:

White boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, seasoning (autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary), sodium phosphates, seasoning (canola oil, mono- and diglycerides, extractives of rosemary). Battered and breaded with: water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, whey, corn starch. 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.

Depending on how you count, there are approximately 44 ingredients here. 44. Really. Okay, if I get past the 44 ingredients, which I really can't, I wonder what the hell is an antifoaming agent. When we fry chicken at home, we don't need an antifoaming agent. I've deep fried lots of things and never needed to add Dimethylpolysiloxane, whatever that is.

The barbeque sauce your kid dips those nuggets into has at least another 25 ingredients.

The fries famously have natural beef flavor. (They also have Dimethylpolysiloxane. I think McDonalds should contact my grandmother who doesn't use an antifoaming agent and makes some of the best fried chicken I've ever had.)

I'll stop there. You get the point. Now, I'm not claiming to be a purist; our boys have had fast food (though I don't think they've had Happy Meals), but it sure gives me more than a twinge of guilt. I know our society isn't exactly set up to feed people healthy food; try being out and finding fast healthy food that a hungry, dehydrated, overtired 4-year old will eat. I know why parents, including us, break down and buy quick, toxic food. And I know my boys will have more fast food on my dime in the future, but I know a little piece of me will die inside knowing (or not knowing) what is inside that food. Hopefully my boys' insides will be fine.

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