Science

Why McDonald’s Happy Meals don’t mould

Leave a Happy Meal in your room for days and it won’t go mouldy (Photographer: Memphis CVB)

By Maria Mellor

Circulating the internet recently has been a Facebook post showing a six year old McDonald’s Happy Meal that hasn’t gone mouldy, with the owner warning everyone away from McDonald’s because of all the ‘chemicals’ they supposedly put in their food. This isn’t the first time someone has done this kind of experiment – Buzzfeed left burgers from seven different fast food chains for thirty days with a Burger King burger ending up completely covered in greenish fluff, compared to a McDonald’s burger which hardly changed. Does this mean that Burger King is better for you than McDonald’s? We’re here to explain the science behind it.

Growing mould requires a set of ingredients – mould spores, water, nutrients and a hospitable environment. Without one of these things, mould can’t grow. Mould spores are all around us in the air, so the reason for the immortal burgers couldn’t be a lack of spores. You’d think there would be some kind of water content in a McNugget, as well as some kind of nutrients. Mould can grow on walls so surely it can grow on fast food? Apparently not.

It’s not just this one person who has tried keeping food from McDonald’s for far longer than they should. In Iceland the chain was shut down in 2009, but one man kept one of the last hamburgers ever bought there for six years, three of which it spent in the National Museum of Iceland. Health advocates have been using ancient burgers as a prop to show parents to help keep their children away from junk food. Karen Hanrahan, from the blog Best of Mother Earth, for example has had hers since 1996 that she uses as a prop. She, like most other health advocates who follow this chain of thought, believes that it is because there are so many preservatives and so called ‘chemicals’ are what keeps it from rotting, and you therefore should not be putting it in your body. A McDonald’s Happy Meal may not be the healthiest thing for you, but there are other reasons why you shouldn’t want to eat it.

By law companies cannot lie about what they put in their food. You can go on the McDonald’s website and find out exactly what goes into every item on their menu, and honestly there’s nothing out of the ordinary or incredibly bad. In fact in their burger patties they unequivocally state that it’s “100% Pure Beef. No additives, fillers, binders, preservatives or flavour enhancers. Just pure forequarter and flank. A little salt and pepper is added to season after cooking.”

So what does stop it from going mouldy? What seems to be the key factor is the moisture content of McDonald’s meals. J. Kenji López-Alt, a restaurant-trained chef and managing director of the blog Serious Eats, performed an experiment with the patties, finding that

The fries are, like the name suggests, fried at a very high heat, which not only kills most of the pathogens in them, but also removes most of the water content. The burgers on the other hand are thin, allowing water to escape easily, especially as the burger cools down. Most McDonald’s food has a high fat content, and as Barry Swanson, a professor at the Washington State University says: “Anything that is high in fat will be low in moisture,” therefore creating awful conditions for mould to grow. Furthermore, they’re stored in packaging made of cardboard and paper that allows the moisture to escape – if you tried to keep a McDonald’s burger in a sealed plastic container you’d probably be left with nothing but fluff within the fortnight.

The salt content of McDonald’s food doesn’t help either. A 6 piece portion of McNuggets has about 12% of an adult’s recommended daily amount of salt in it, and a portion of fries has about 10%. The salt dries out the food even more, giving mould spores hardly any chance to grow.

You shouldn’t be scared of food just because it doesn’t mould. If this were the case we’d all be swearing off dried rice and oatmeal for life! While we’re not advocating excessive consumption of Maccy D’s, there’s no harmful ‘chemicals’ that haven’t been approved and regulated, or that you couldn’t find in any other food. The reason why people have found that their Happy Meals haven’t gone mouldy is simply due to the lack of moisture available to help mould grow.

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