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11 Scary Ingredients Lurking in Your Fast Food

Did you know eating fast food just twice a week can make you gain 10 pounds and double your risk for insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes, obesity, and a host of other health issues? (If that’s not enough to scare you, maybe knowing that a 1999 McDonald’s burger is still looking fresh or that Burger King burgers were contaminated with horsemeat in 2012 will. Ew.)

Needless to say, I don’t think anyone would be shocked to learn that fast food isn’t the healthiest dining option out there, but it may not be for the reasons you think. The fried foods and the empty-calorie sodas aren’t the only thing that make fast food bad for you. It’s not such a bad thing to have something battered and fried, or high in fat or calories, as long as it’s mixed with a balanced diet and active lifestyle. But what about all the other things that make fast food not so much a food, but more of a science experiment? Often referred to as “Franken-food,” fast food is typically composed of a variety of absolutely terrifying ingredients you would never consider putting in your body if they weren’t disguised so beautifully as a delicious burger or French fry, and presented in fun, colorful packaging and buried in catchy marketing messages.

Take for example McDonald’s menu description: “Our tender, juicy, Chicken McNuggets are made with USDA-inspected white meat. They’re tempura battered and cooked to golden perfection.” Doesn’t sound half-bad, right? Until you look past that flaky exterior and further into the ingredient list. According to Dr. Mercola, “Only 50 percent of a McNugget is actually chicken. The other half includes corn derivatives, sugars, leavening agents, and completely synthetic ingredients…” If that’s not bad enough, a recent Annals of Diagnostic Pathology study revealed that the percentage of meat in fast food hamburgers may be as little as 2% — as in only 2% of your meat is actually meat. (The median was 12% meat.) Yikes.

After looking into this I’m slightly regretting all the fast food I ate on my road trip this past weekend. Although the occasional fast food isn’t really a big deal, I’ll be keeping these ingredients in mind next time I decide to roll through the drive through. It’s definitely making me appreciate the simplicity of the “rule” to try to eat foods with five ingredients or less, that way there’s less likelihood of crazy things like the following making the list.

So what scary things are making up that other 50 to 98% that’s not meat? Click through to find out what ingredients are lurking in your fast food.

  • Hidden Secrets of Fast Food 1 of 11
    fast food ingredients

    So what scary are things are making up that other 50 to 98% that's not meat? Click through to find out what ingredients are lurking in your fast food.

  • Caramel Coloring 2 of 11
    Fast food cola

    What it is: Caramel coloring is not at all what you might think of when you hear the word "caramel." Instead of being melted sugar like traditional caramel, caramel coloring is synthetically made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites. This process results in the chemicals 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole, which have been linked to thyroid, liver, and lung cancer, as well as leukemia. While there are four types of caramel coloring, the two made with ammonia, Class III and IV, are the harmful ones. Unfortunately, these are not typically distinguished on the food label. Caramel coloring is on the Centers for Science and Public Interest's (CSPI) list of additives to avoid, stating there is "clear evidence" it is an animal carcinogen.

    Alternative uses: Pet food

    The offenders: Taco Bell meat filling, Wendy's Sweet and Sour Sauce, Chick-fil-A's Icedream, sodas

  • Yellow #5 & #6 3 of 11
    Chocolate donut

    What it is:  Yellow dye #5 (or Tartrazine) and #6 (Sunset Yellow) are artificial dyes used to color food and drinks. Although approved for use by the FDA, they've been associated with hyperactivity and behavior problems in kids. They've also been linked with cancer. Many companies in the UK have voluntarily removed these dyes from food. The UK also requires warning labels on foods containing yellow #5 or yellow #6. These artificial colors are both on the Centers for Science and Public Interest's (CSPI) list of additives to avoid

    Other dyes to look out for are Red #2, Red #3, Red #40, Green#3, #Blue #1, and Blue #2. (Red #40, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6 account for 90% of all food dyes.)

    Alternative uses: Soap, nail polish, temporary tattoos.

    The offenders: Burger King Cinnamon Rolls, Wendy's Honey Mustard Sauce, Dunkin Donuts Apple Cheese Danish and Boston Kreme Donut, Chick-fil-A Spicy Chicken Sandwich

  • Sodium Nitrite 4 of 11
    iStock_000016251399XSmall

    What it is: Sodium nitrite is a preservative and flavoring used in cured meats like bacon, ham, and hot dogs. It's been associated with colorectal cancer and poor oxygen transport in babies. A 2011 study showed that people who eat a lot of processed meat have a higher likelihood of heart disease. Sodium nitrite is on the Centers for Science and Public Interest's (CSPI) list of additives to avoid.

    Alternative uses: Pharmaceuticals, dyes, pesticides

    The offenders: McDonald's Egg McMuffin, Wendy's Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, Dunkin Donuts Bacon, Egg, & Cheese Bagel

  • MSG 5 of 11
    Chicken Strips with Hot Pepper Sauce

    What it is: MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is used as a flavor enhancer and seasoning, can cause headaches, nausea, weakness, and chest pain in those that are sensitive to it, according to WebMD. It's included on the CSPI list of additives some people should avoid, although it can be tough to do so because of the many names you can find MSG disguised under, such as autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, or many names containing "hydrolyzed."

    Alternative uses: Fertilizer

    The offenders: Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich, KFC Chicken Strips

  • Feathers & Hair 6 of 11
    Chicken pot pie

    What it is: Seen as L-cysteine on the label, this amino acid is made of duck feathers and/or human hair. It's used as a dough conditioner for baked goods to improve their texture. It's not harmful, just potentially gross.

    Alternative uses: Pharmeceuticals, hair perm solutions, cigarettes 

    The offenders: McDonald's Apple Pie, KFC Chunky Chicken Pot Pie

  • Sand 7 of 11
    Hearty bowl of chili

    What it is: Sand, or silicon dioxide or silica, is often used as an anti-caking agent in meat-based products like chili and processed beef.

    Alternative use: Ceramics, glass, cement, optical fibers, packets to prevent mildew

    The offenders: Wendy's chili, Taco Bell's Chili and Black Beans, Chick-fil-A Chicken Strips

  • Wood Pulp 8 of 11
    iStock_000016960250XSmall

    What it is: Wood pulp, alternatively (and quite preferably) called cellulose, is used to thicken and stabilize foods. It also helps make up for lost fat and increases fiber content. It's typically used as a cheaper alternative to oil and flour. This lovely form of sawdust can also make ice cream creamier. Cellulose can also be listed on the label as microcrystalline cellulose (MCC), carboxymethyl cellulose, or cellulose gum.

    Alternative use: Paper

    The offenders: McDonald's BBQ Snack Wrap and Oreo McFlurry, Taco Bell Nacho Chips, Wendy's Frosty and Asiago Ranch Chicken Club, KFC Popcorn Chicken

  • Dimetylpolysiloxane 9 of 11
    iStock_000015961004XSmall

    What it is: Dimetylpolysiloxane is a type of silicone used in deep fryers to keep the oil from foaming, which helps the oil last longer. Mmm appetizing. It's also used as an anti-caking agent and an emulsifier.

    Alternative use: Silly Putty, breast implants, makeup, industrial oils

    The offenders: McDonald's French Fries and Filet-o-Fish Sandwich, Wendy's French Fries and Chicken Nuggets, Taco Bell Apple Empanada

  • TBHQ 10 of 11
    Waldorf Salad

    What it is: TBHQ, or tertiary butylhydroquinone is a chemical derived from petroleum — yes, the stuff you put in your car — typically listed as an antioxidant on ingredient lists. Antioxidants are typically something we want in our food, but not in this case. TGHQ is used to prevent fats and oils from oxidizing, thus increasing their shelf life, not improving our health. TBHQ can cause nausea, vomiting, deliriousness, and tinnitus. It is on the Centers for Science and Public Interest's (CSPI) list of additives to avoid. Kids often tend to be more sensitive to these types of additives.

    Other "antioxidants" like THBQ include BHA and BHT.

    Alternative use: Lacquer, varnish, pesticides, makeup, butane in lighters

    The offenders: McDonald's Apple & Walnut Salad, Taco Bell Beans, Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich

  • Mechanically Separated Meat 11 of 11
    mincing meat

    What it is: Mechanically separated meat (MSM) may be the least appealing thing to me on this list. No kind of meat should need an abbreviation or an explanation. MSM, commonly referred to as "pink slime," is pureed meat, bones, and edible tissue, which is then treated with ammonium hydroxide to decrease bacteria. Mmm. Because there's no flavor or color left at this point, the meat paste is then pumped full of artificial flavors and colors. Still hungry?

    Alternative use: Ammonia is used in household cleaners and fertilizers

    The offenders: Unclear, but luckily in 2012 McDonald's, Wendy's, and Taco Bell said they would stop using it.

Ingredient information for fast food menu items found on company websites.  All photo credits to iStockPhoto. Photos not intended to represent actual product. 

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