No one ever goes to McDonald’s thinking they’re going to be getting a meal that’s delicious, tasty, good for you, and that you’ll be proud of eating later. It’s fast, hot, and it fills the hole. Your kids probably eat it without a ton of argument (maybe even without any argument, which all parents know is huge). That’s really all you’re looking for when you hit up the Golden Arches. Sometimes, it’s even a guilty pleasure. The bar is not set very high for the reigning champ of fast food.
Still, no matter how low your expectations, you expect a restaurant (especially one as popular as McDonald’s) to be putting decent — if not high quality — ingredients on your tray, and maintaining a safe, clean facility. You certainly don’t expect to be encountering anything especially gross during your visit. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, so let’s talk about the most cringe-worthy things you need to know before you eat at McDonald’s again.
There’s a reason they’re not called milkshakes
We are, under no circumstances, telling you not to get your annual Shamrock Shakes. Doing so would be a crime against humanity, and is more than should be expected of any human. But we do want to tell you why they’re called "shakes" and not "milkshakes." Snopes says there’s been a rumor going around that they can’t be called milkshakes because they don’t contain dairy products, but that’s not true at all. They definitely use milk in those shakes… but they don’t use ice cream.
Instead, they combine reduced fat soft serve (which may or may not be able to be called ice cream, depending on your state), with flavored syrup for whichever flavor you order, along with whipped cream. It’s designed that way to not just be fast, but consistent across all McDonald’s, so while you’re not getting something that’s quite as gross as you might think, you’re not getting any real ice cream, either — and that’s why they’re not called milkshakes.
That McCafe machine might not be the cleanest
This little tidbit of nastiness comes to us via a Reddit thread asking, "Fast food workers of Reddit, what should we NOT order at your restaurant? Why not?" A user named Envirometh had all sorts of thoughts on just why you should think twice about picking up a McCafe beverage, and says that in their experience as an employee, they’ve seen plenty of machines that are rarely cleaned.
They also say it’s not an easy job, and the machines are horrendously complicated — so much so they required specialized servicing and training to take them apart and really get all the gunk out of the nooks and crannies, not to mention the lines.
In all fairness, another employee chimes to say their McDonald’s managers went above and beyond to clean the McCafe machines, and added it took an average of 30 to 45 minutes each and every day to keep them clean. That’s a ton of work, so buyer beware. Not everyone might be very thorough — which means some of that gunk might be lingering in the machine when you place your order.
How chicken McNuggets are really made
You’ve heard the horror stories about how McDonald’s actually makes those weirdly-textured chicken McNuggets. You know, the ones that are great when you’re 5 years old. McDonald’s has been trying to clean up the image of their McNuggets, and in 2014 they released a video that shows just how they’re made. There’s no pink slime in sight, but it’s still pretty gross.
The video is from McD’s Canada, but NPR was assured it’s the same process that takes place in the U.S. After the breast meat is removed from chickens that are very real indeed, they’re sent through a grinder with seasoning and chicken skin. That’s what gives the nuggets that strange texture, and how they’re prepped for shaping into boots, bells, balls, and bow ties. They’re battered twice, par-fried, frozen, and shipped off to stores that will finish cooking them. It’s not as bad as you might expect, but it’s still pretty unappetizing.
There are a shocking number of ingredients in their fries
If you make your own french fries at home, you’ll know you typically use potatoes, oil, salt, and maybe another type of seasoning. Think you’re getting the same thing at McD’s? Not so fast. Check out their ingredient list and you’ll find a shocking number of things on there — 19 ingredients, to be exact. So what is all that stuff?
The Daily Meal looked at what some of these ingredients do. Natural beef flavor and citric acid are added to the oils those potatoes are fried in, and they’re coated with a mix of salt, dextrose, and sodium acid pyrophosphate. That last one keeps them from turning brown as they wait for someone to order them — which is important, because no one wants brown fries. We should also mention that "natural beef flavor" has ingredients of its own — hydrolyzed milk and hydrolyzed wheat. Now you know.
It’s true, their burgers don’t rot or mold
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: The claims their burgers won’t mold or rot, no matter how long you let them sit. It’s true — sort of — and Serious Eats did some serious science to figure out why.
After months of setting out various burgers and food items, they found there’s no rotting going on simply because it takes moisture to do either, they’ll dry out before they can rot. Since they’re thin patties cooked super fast on a hot surface, they lose a ton of moisture just in the cooking process. It’s the same cooking process that kills bacteria or other nasties that might be present in the burger, and they also confirmed other burgers of similar shape and size won’t rot, either. Larger McD’s burgers will rot and mold, depending on how they’re stored, so the only real gross thing that’s going on here is you’re getting served an incredibly dry burger.
Everything about their ice cream machines
In 2017, Buzzfeed spoke to the Louisiana teen at the center of a bit of viral outrage. Asking to be referred to only by his first name, Nick says he was told to clean the ice cream machine at the McDonald’s where he worked. When he got started, he found the trays were filled with mold and slime — so he Tweeted photos. Other McDonald’s employees and former employees came forward to support him, saying it was management’s job to clean the machines and it was rarely done right. Nick was fired right after Tweeting the photos, and McDonald’s was quick to clarify that the trays pictured do not come into contact with food, which we suppose makes the whole thing just a tiny bit less gross.
According to The Wall Street Journal (via Thrillist), it’s no easy matter to clean those machines thoroughly — and that’s why they always seem to be down. Cleaning a McFlurry machine is an 11-step process that, when done properly, includes a 4-hour heat-cleaning cycle. That’s not counting the time it takes to run the other steps, prep the machine for cleaning, and get them up and running again. Here’s the thing — McDonald’s knows how difficult they are to clean, and they promised in early 2017 the machines would be replaced. FoodBeast revisited the issue eight months later, and nothing had changed.
Seriously everything about the PlayPlace
According to a Reddit thread that asked, "McDonald’s employees, what is the worst thing that has every happened in the PlayPlace," it should probably just be called PoopPlace for accuracy’s sake. Employees spoke up with a ton of stories about kids pooping in the slide (and others sliding through it), in the crawl tubes, and definitely in the ball pit. One said there was almost always a layer of forgotten food at the bottom of the ball pit, and then swore the contents of said pit were 50 percent edible, 25 percent balls, and 25 percent poop. Tongue-in-cheek, maybe, but they’re not entirely wrong.
Dr. Erin Carr Jordan is a professor of developmental psychology and mother-of-four (via Gizmodo), and she was understandably concerned about just what her kids were crawling through at McDonald’s. She took sample swabs from numerous PlayPlace playgrounds, and Wired says they came back positive for listeria, staph, and tons of other nasty bacteria that you probably wouldn’t want your kids exposed to. The story gets weirdly worse, and when she approached a McDonald’s manager after seeing a child lick the equipment in one particular PlayPlace, she was served with legal documents banning her from McDonald’s for being disruptive. Legit, or no?
Those new touchscreen kiosks make ordering a breeze, but you might want to completely disinfect yourself after you use them — or maybe just go old school and place your order at the register (or from the safety of your car).
In 2018, the UK’s Metro swabbed eight McDonald’s touchscreens, six in London and two in Birmingham. Here’s what Dr. Paul Matewele, a senior lecturer in microbiology from the London Metropolitan University, had to say about the findings: "We were all surprised how much gut and fecal bacteria there was on the touchscreen machines. These cause the kind of infections that people pick up in hospitals."
The bacteria strains were no joke, either. The touchscreen at one location had staphylococcus, which is on the list of bacteria that are becoming resistant to antibiotics used to treat infections. Listeria was found at two locations, and is particularly dangerous to those with a compromised immune system or who are pregnant.
And three-quarters of the locations tested positive for proteus, which is carried in soil, animal, and human feces.
McDonald’s responded by saying that the touchscreens are cleaned regularly, but Matewele suggested the disinfectant being used might not be strong enough — particularly considering the number of people that use the screen, then pick up their food without washing their hands in between.
There’s a new Hamburglar, and he’s creep-tastic
McDonald’s has always had some iconic characters doing the heavy lifting when it comes to advertising, and you might not have noticed, but one seemed to drop off the face of the Earth in 2002. The Hamburglar disappeared, and according to a McDonald’s spokeswoman (via CNN), he was actually "lying low" and "living a quiet life." He returned in 2015, and people thought he was all kinds of creepy.
The character got a complete makeover into a mask-wearing, red-gloved, actual person. While some thought the new look was weirdly attractive (and isn’t it strange to feel that way about the Hamburglar anyway?), AdWeek says others took to Twitter to say the complete opposite. He was called "the creepy guy at your high school reunion that makes you wonder what went wrong…" by suggestaurant, and Stephanie Sigafoos summed it up pretty well by saying, "Pretty sure I saw him in that video about creepy ways your kids will be abducted." Not really the vibe you’d expect them to go for, is it?
Their "creepy and predatory" marketing practices
What’s more gross than using toys to lure children through the doors of your establishment? According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that’s exactly what McDonald’s is doing with the toys they’ve been putting in their Happy Meals for years. CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner went as far as saying, "McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children. McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity — all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction."
Whether or not you immediately agree with that, it’s worth a second thought. In 2010, CSPI filed a class action lawsuit to stop what they say is a pretty shady way to bribe kids to want to go to McDonald’s at an age when lifelong eating practices are being shaped. Reuters reported the suit was ultimately dismissed, and added there was no explanation for the dismissal made public. That leaves it up to you to decide if one of their major marketing campaigns is smart, or grossly irresponsible.
They advertised fries as vegetarian, and they’re not
If you’re a strict vegetarian, you might think you’re safe to pick up some McDonald’s fries. You can’t get much more vegetarian than sticks of potato fried in vegetable oil… can you?
In 2002, McDonald’s was the target of a huge uproar amongst Hindus living in India. In spite of the fact that hash browns and fries were both clearly labeled as being vegetarian in that country, they were fried in oil that contained essence of beef. That’s not just a matter of false advertising getting people to break with vegetarianism, not eating beef is a religious belief for many. Cows are sacred to some, and not surprisingly, people were outraged.
CBS News reported McDonald’s promised to make amends by changing the way their fries are made in India, and donating $10 million to Hindu groups. They also added that nowhere in America have they advertised their fries are vegetarian, because they’re absolutely not. ThoughtCo. reached out to McDonald’s in 2017, and they responded they have no intentions of changing their recipes or making fries vegetarian in the US. Why? It’s a mystery.
Their salads are horrible
McDonald’s has joined in with a nationwide movement to get healthier, and for their part, they’ve added a few salads to their menu. It seems like a legitimate way to dodge the post-Big Mac guilt, but CBC News found they’re not as healthy as you think, and in some cases, you might be better off opting for a burger.
Their news team says McDonald’s kale Caesar salad with crispy chicken and Asiago Caesar dressing is the biggest offender, and the problem comes in when you start adding up ingredients. You’re paying a price for crispy chicken and dressing, and that price is 730 calories, 53 grams of fat, and 1400 mg of sodium. Compare that to a Double Big Mac, and you’re eating 30 more calories, 15 more grams of fat, and 60 more mg of sodium — in the salad!
Others aren’t much better. The bacon ranch salad comes with 28 grams of fat, and the southwest buttermilk crispy chicken salad clocks in at 25 grams of fat (and 520 calories). If you’re going to McDonald’s, you’re actually better off not trying to eat healthy. It might be healthier.
Their sodium content is insane
You know you’re getting an insane amount of fat and calories when you head to McDonald’s — that’s just a given. Let’s make your lunch even grosser by telling you just how much sodium you’re eating, too.
First, let’s look to the American Heart Association. They recommend limiting your daily sodium intake to no more than 2300 mg per day, but say a more ideal amount is 1500 mg. Keep that in mind.
Now, consider the bacon and cheese sirloin Third Pound Burger has a whopping 2030 mg of sodium, and we’re not even talking about the side of fries you always get with it. Going for breakfast? Take the Big Breakfast with hotcakes and egg whites, which contains an almost unthinkable 2150 mg of sodium. The Balance says it’s getting worse. In 2012, the menu had eight items containing more than 50 percent of a person’s daily recommended sodium intake.
In 2017, that skyrocketed to 24 items, and in 2018, nothing had changed. Still on the list of items with an unhealthy amount of sodium are items like the 6-Piece Buttermilk Crispy Tenders, the Double Bacon Smokehouse Burger, and an overwhelming number of breakfast items. With sodium being such a major concern for so many Americans, that’s just unacceptable.