Okay, so first thing’s first: We understand that when you’re on the lookout for a quality meal using the freshest possible ingredients, McDonald’s probably isn’t the first fast food chain to jump to the front of your mind. McDonald’s has built a massive corporation based on the understanding that we all get hit with a craving for a Double Cheeseburger that costs less than a newspaper once in a while, and the Golden Arches have been there to satisfy that urge for generations. After all, you don’t grow to be one of the largest chain restaurants in the world, causing seismic shifts in the way food is grown, produced, marketed, cooked, and served by selling anemic salads out of a plastic cup which you have to shake around like a maniac.
With the future of the legendary Dollar Menu uncertain, McDonald’s has been focusing attention less on providing food at the lowest possible price point and more on ingredient quality. However, even as the chain makes moves to overhaul its offerings to include more fresh items (including fresh beef, sustainable fish, reduced artificial colors and flavors, and healthier Happy Meal options), there are still a few items lurking on the menu that may be a lot less fresh than you’d think. Let’s take a look.
Two-week old Happy Meal apple slices
If you’ve ever tried to get your head around just how massive a force McDonald’s is in the world of food production, try this: When the company finally stepped up to help curb rising childhood obesity levels by making apple slices the automatic side in their famous Happy Meal back in 2011, an entire industry was transformed almost overnight. Almost immediately, the McDonald’s corporation became the number one buyer of apples in the United States. According to Business Insider, the Golden Arches sells more than 10 percent of all sliced apples in the country, and has helped make the fruit a more common side dish choice.
But it turns out those pre-washed, skinless bagged apple slices may have been kicking around a lot longer than you’d think. The fruit is slow to oxidize and turn brown thanks to a heaping helping of calcium ascorbate (a blend of calcium and vitamin C), which keeps the fruit looking fresh for much longer than it probably should. In fact, according to McDonald’s corporate dietitian Shaye Arluk, the sliced apples you’ll find in a Happy Meal have a shelf life of about 14 days.
Compare that to an apple you slice at home, which begins to turn brown the minute you look at it funny, and it means that while sliced apples at McDonald’s may be a healthier choice than french fries, they’re still not exactly "fresh."
The beef on most of the menu
If you’ve consumed any type of media any time in the last year, you’ve probably heard that McDonald’s has started using fresh, never frozen beef in their Signature Crafted sandwiches, as well as in their classic Quarter Pounder lineup. With competing chains like Wendy’s and In-N-Out touting the freshness of their beef in commercials and online, the introduction of fresh beef cooked to order made perfect sense for the chain. And thus far, the results have been good — though you may have to wait a minute or two more for your freshly-made Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or your Signature Collection Bacon Smokehouse, reviews of the fresh beef have been mostly positive.
All of this begs the question, however… if McDonald’s is using fresh beef for only some of its burgers, what in the heck is it using for everything else on the menu? For the time being at least, McDonald’s still uses hamburger patties that arrive frozen, are cooked without prior thawing (which makes the beef taste under-seasoned, watery, and washed-out), and may sit in warming drawers for some time before being assembled for your burger.
The fries that might have been made awhile ago
According to McDonald’s UK, after the fries come out of the fryer, they are held for just five minutes before any leftovers are scrapped and a new order is started. But as literally everyone on the planet who has had to suffer through a sad sack of anemic, room temperature, mealy fries from McDonald’s can testify, that rule definitely seems to get bent from time to time.
Besides, when it comes to McDonald’s fries, even five minutes may be entirely too long. Rigorous, highly-scientific testing by The Takeout reveals that McDonald’s fries transform rapidly from a gift of fluffy, golden-brown snacking perfection delivered on the wings of newborn baby angels, into a greasy sleeve of inedible garbage in as little as five minutes. When it comes to McDonald’s fries, there are only two categories of "freshness." They either just came out of the fryer, were dumped into a sleeve and got handed to you in one continuous motion, or they didn’t. And if they didn’t, they’re trash.
Who knows when those salads expire
The salads are McDonald’s are already on pretty shaky ground, nutritionally. What seems like a healthier option often ends up packing in the same fat and calories as a cheeseburger, once you factor in all of the ranch dressing and fried chicken that McDonald’s often includes in its salad lineup. For example, a Bacon Ranch Salad with Buttermilk Crispy Chicken and a sidecar of ranch dressing will set you back about 620 calories and 39 grams of fat. That’s about the same as a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. With bacon.
Okay, so questionable health options aside, there’s an even bigger problem with the salads at McDonald’s: No one seems to be able to pin down exactly how long they’ve been around. Reddit users are full of stories about employees slapping new expiration date stickers on top of the old ones, in order to "extend" the servable lifetime of the salads. The result? No one really knows how long that salad may have been sitting around, but hey, if it’s not growing fur and the romaine hasn’t liquefied, who’s to know?
The McNuggets might stay under the warmer for some time
When it comes to truly resilient factory-to-table foodstuffs that can have all sorts of abuse heaped on them, while still remaining completely edible, you have to stand in awe of the humble McNugget. When they’re served piping hot and fresh, and dunked in your choice of sauce, they’re delicious. Fortunately, even if they’ve been sitting around a while, they’re also delicious.
In a Reddit post, one former McDonald’s employee stirred up quite a controversy when he leveled the following accusation:
"I used to work at McDonalds. If you order, especially chicken nuggets, just ask for them fresh. Otherwise they’ve been just sitting in their container in the heat. They have a timer, but 9/10 times when that timer goes off, people just reset the timer instead of making new ones. This could go on until all the nuggets are sold."
As is typical on Reddit, the follow-up comments ranged from polite confirmation of this rumor, to full-on assaults of the OP’s character and integrity, so you’ll have to evaluate this one for yourself.
The hotcakes arrive frozen
When you imagine mornings behind the line at McDonald’s, what pops into your head? A pack of fun-loving, bright-eyed teenagers with their whole lives in front of them mixing up fresh bowls of hotcake batter, faces smudged playfully with all-purpose flour, whisking giant bowls of sugar and eggs, and scooping ladlefuls of that liquid gold batter onto a hot, butter-streaked sizzling griddle, where they puff and rise to fluffy perfection? The reality is probably a little different.
McDonald’s Canada confirms that their hotcakes arrive frozen in a giant cardboard box, are stored in the freezer unit at the restaurant, and are unceremoniously thrown into the microwave when a customer commits nutritional hari-kari by ordering a Big Breakfast with Hotcakes. A few seconds of low-frequency radiation later, and your pancakes are tossed into a box and ready to go. It may be efficient, and it may help ensure uniformity of product, but it ain’t exactly fresh.
The folded eggs are made from a mix and arrive pre-cooked
A quick note regarding in-house McDonald’s egg nomenclature: McDonald’s serves three major types of eggs in their breakfast platters, McMuffins, and McGriddles. (For the purposes of this discussion, we won’t bother with the Egg Whites that you’ve never ordered or the eggs used in the Sausage Burritos, which you’ve only ordered when you’re so hungover that it hardly matters what you’re eating.)
There’s the "folded egg" that’s used in the McGriddle, biscuit, and bagel sandwiches, which is made from liquid eggs, cooked, and flash-frozen off-site. Those eggs contain sodium acid pyrophosphate, citric acid, and monosodium phosphate, for color; as well as carrageenan, modified food starch, and soybean oil for texture.
The scrambled eggs used on breakfast platters are also made from liquid eggs, though these are cooked in the restaurant, and include sodium acid pyrophosphate, citric acid, monosodium phosphate, and nisin.
Finally, there’s the so-called "round egg," used in some McMuffins, which is freshly cracked from actual USDA Grade A eggs right in the restaurant. These are also the only eggs in the McDonald’s lineup that don’t have any additives or stabilizers.
The takeaway? If you’re looking for the freshest possible egg with the lowest amount of extra "stuff" added to the mix, always ask for a "round egg."
Even the round eggs get held for up to 20 minutes
Remember that thing we just said about sticking to the round eggs, if you want the freshest possible product? Like many elements of the food production engine at McDonald’s, even this rule comes with a caveat.
While the standards that get handed down from corporate tend to guarantee fresh product, the human component ensures that things don’t always go as planned. McDonald’s Australia insists that after being cooked, round eggs can be held in a warming drawer for no more than 20 minutes, after which they have to be thrown out and cooked again for inclusion in a McMuffin. This seems like a good rule… if it’s actually observed. We’re not accusing anyone of anything here, but ask yourself: If you were a harried McDonald’s employee cranking out McMuffins as fast as you possibly could while orders backed up behind you, and you had the choice between bringing production to a grinding halt in order to cook a whole new batch of eggs, or simply resetting the timer on the warming drawer, what would you do? What would you do?
Those little diced onion bits are not freshly chopped
In this day and age of political turmoil and social unrest, there may be no simpler pleasure than the singular perfection of a piping hot, freshly-made classic McDonald’s cheeseburger. That thin slip of well-done beef. The too-sweet ketchup. The single pickle chip, or two, if you’re having the luckiest day on Earth. And that fine mist of chopped onions, diced so impossibly small that you wonder how human hands could have achieved such a fine mince. Well, it turns out, they don’t.
According to a thread on Quora, where McDonald’s insiders leak top-secret information about the behind-the-scenes secrets of the chain, those little diced onions aren’t chopped fresh at all. They arrive in dehydrated form like Sea Monkeys in giant bags, and are brought back to life by being soaked in water until they plump up and turn back into onions — making this the number one product that we wish McDonald’s sold in retail stores so that we could make these cheeseburgers at home.
The pastries in the McCafe Bakery lineup are questionable
For those times when you want a sweet treat, but don’t really want to take out a second mortgage for a Starbucks pastry, McDonald’s has you covered with their lineup of McCafe Bakery pastries, including chocolate chip cookies and those iconic baked apple pies. Unfortunately, according to more than one Quora user speaking about McDonald’s secrets, you can’t count on those appealing-looking pastries being pulled fresh from the oven when you order them.
"Our pastries are never really fresh," one employee said on the thread. "They’re often made early in the morning and they sit for 3–4 hours until another batch is made."
Another employee chimed in saying, "Cookies are never fresh. Pies depend on the restaurant. My branch cooks pies when customers order them or when the management is feeling peckish, but we cook one or two batches of cookies in the morning and just let them sit there."
Sounds like your best bet is to skip the cookies altogether, unless you’re eating them for breakfast.