For years, research has indicated that the quick-serve, mass-produced, cost-effective meals you’ll find at most fast-food restaurants are anything but healthy. Regularly eating these foods—which are high in calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, and carbs—has been linked with side effects such as an increased risk of weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and depression… just to name a few.
That said, “If you only consume processed or fast food very occasionally, your risk of adverse effects is low,” says Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, INHC, author of The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits For Managing Stress & Anxiety.
Still, there are some other, not-so-obvious ingredients in fast food that can cause additional health concerns. Read on to find out the additives, preservatives, and chemicals that could be in your drive-thru comfort favorites. and for more, be aware of the 112 Most Popular Sodas Ranked By How Toxic They Are.
McDonald’s World Famous Fries are made with natural beef flavor that “contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients,” according to the restaurant’s website. Back in 2002, CBS News reported that McDonald’s Corporation settled a group of lawsuits for labeling their fries and hash browns as vegetarian although they were enhanced with beef from the vegetable oil.
The FDA outlines that any food labeled with the term “natural flavoring” means “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring” should come from a variety of food products. So, what exactly is in the beef flavor if beef is not indicated on the ingredient list?
Sometimes simply referred to as bromate, this additive is tossed into recipes to enhance the texture and rising of flour, Cording says. “While it does get ‘used up’ in the baking process if the appropriate amount is used, when too much is included in a recipe, some can remain in the finished product,” she states.
After animal studies found a possible link to cancerous tumors, potassium bromate was banned in Canada, the UK, and the European Union. And yet, it’s still reportedly found in sandwich buns and pizza doughs from some fast-food chains in the U.S.
“The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] encourages bakers in the U.S. to choose not to use bromated flours, and laws in the state of California require products made with potassium bromate to disclose the potential cancer link on the label,” Cording continues. “If you’re only having that particular food item once in a very great while, the danger is likely minimal. But if it’s a more frequent part of your diet, consider an alternative.”
Related: The Unhealthiest Fast Food Sandwiches in America—And 10 Healthier Options
The FDA has deemed it “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), but recommends users don’t exceed “current good manufacturing practice.”
“While documented toxicity is rare, there are potential health risks with high intake of foods that contain it—particularly in individuals with liver and kidney issues—because of how the body processes this compound,” continues Cording. “Regardless of its GRAS status, it’s worth pointing out that propylene glycol is also used in non-food products, cosmetics, anti-freeze, and ice packs, which isn’t particularly appetizing.”
Related: The 23 Worst Food Additives in America
Fried meals and snacks found at fast-food restaurants are likely to contain the preservative tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, in order to prevent spoilage in oils and fats (usually animal fats).