Missing the middle: French fries do get fat

Photo of McDonalds billboard

The McDonald's billboard pictured above sent the needle on my BS-o-meter into the red when I saw it hovering atop a row of sparkling Victorians in San Francisco's Mission District while out on a walk with the San Francisco City Guides (one of the finest local history and culture organizations in the nation).

This billboard "recipe" for french fries seems to be missing a few things.

Could it be the vat of hot oil that contributes 220 fat calories to a large order of fries?

Or could it be the other ingredients that go into making french fries, like "natural beef flavor," sodium acid pyrophosphate (to maintain color), or dimethylpolysiloxane, which is added to the vegetable oil as an antifoaming agent? The "natural beef flavor" is mysterious, since it appears that it doesn't actually contain beef, perhaps as a result of the legal trouble and outcry a few years ago. McDonald's says that it is made from "wheat and milk derivatives" and "contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients." (Could it be anything like the "meat process" at the Doublemeat Palace?)

Or could it be the complicated processing techniques that allow McDonald's to sell millions of packages of fries each day around the world with essentially the same flavor in each location on every day of the year? It's been decades since fresh potatoes have been used in McDonald's franchises — instead, in order to maintain consistency, the potatoes are blanched and fried in central processing plants, then flash-frozen and transported to local branches. (Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" has an interesting account of a trip to a processing plant.)

I took a look at the nutritional information, and something else doesn't add up. According to McDonald's, a large order of french fries weighs 5.4 ounces and contains 500 calories, 220 of which are from fat. A 5.4-ounce potato ("russet, flesh and skin, raw"), however, is listed at only about 120 calories by the USDA's database. That leaves 160 calories unaccounted for. Have the potatoes been dehydrated? Are the Russet Burbank potatoes significantly different than the russet potato in the USDA database? Or is it something in the fries' flavoring?

5 Responsesto “Missing the middle: French fries do get fat”

  1. Squawkfox says:

    I'll take the before ANY day of the week. I don't know what McDs does to the poor humble potato and I certainly am not going to find out. For completeness the billboard should also display a "Soon After" image of a human heart congested with fry fat plaque.

  2. Considering the fat is probably pretty heavy, even 120 calories from the potato is pretty generous. Those unaccounted for calories are disturbing. Great post!

  3. Yes, in fact the potato is dehydrated - during cooking. You are comparing raw weight to cooked weight. The potato will lose water weight during frying but will also gain some weight from the fat it absorbs (though fat weighs less than water). So 5.4 oz of fries likely started with more than 5.4 oz of raw potato.

  4. There is so much misleading information when it comes to advertising and especially in the "natural" and "organic" relm. You really have to dig deep sometimes to see if they are really natural or are just trying to appear natural. McDonalds is trying to look natural but seem to forget that while although the base ingredient for the french fries may be natural the processing, shaping, cooking and seasonings used probably aren't considered natural. Great post!

  5. Becks says:

    I had a similar reaction Marc, but I got King Corn in my head and thought it might be more appropriate for an ear of corn to replace the potato photo. I really hope no one is fooled by this kind of advertising.