McNugget Chemistry

The following column has created quite a stir on the web.  It ended up on and triggered lots commentary, mostly positive but some obscene.  Next week I’ll have some comments on the comments.

Melodi Dushane of Toledo, Ohio wasn’t concerned about dimethyl polysiloxane or tertiary butylhydroquinone in her Chicken McNuggets, or about the allegation that her tasty morsels were made of 56% corn.  Even though it was 6:30 AM, she had to have them.  When told that nuggets were not available at that time of the morning, Dushane went into a frenzy and began to pummel the drive-through employee before smashing a window with a beer bottle and driving off.  Two months in prison cooled her off.  Latreasa Goodman in Florida took a different approach when told that her McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets.  When the server offered a hamburger instead, she became so enraged that she proceeded to dial 911 to report a “fast food emergency.”  Even after being issued a citation for misusing the 911 system, she insisted that a McNugget shortage was indeed an emergency.

While these two ladies needed their nugget fix, there are others who may be horrified by the thought of eating a concoction that is more corn than chicken, is tainted with lighter fluid, has an ingredient in common with Silly Putty and is full of chemicals with unpronounceable names.  These accusations circulate widely, promoted by the usual array of Internet fear-mongerers such as Joseph Mercola, but also by people who really should know better, like Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma. 

Before we go any further, let me make clear that I am no fan of processed foods.  The number of times I’ve eaten chicken nuggets can be counted on the toes of one chicken.  But that’s not because of any fear of multisyllabic ingredients, it is the high fat and salt content that turns me off.

So what are Chicken McNuggets really made of?  Chicken!  Michael Pollan provocatively implies that the nuggets are 56% corn.  Where does that number come from?  Well, chickens are reared on corn, and Pollan calculates the amount of corn that is converted into chicken flesh, and adds to this the weight of other ingredients that are made from corn, such as the dextrose used in the batter, and comes up with the meaningless but attention-grabbing 56%.  Using this logic, we could all be described as being made of plants since every bit of our flesh can be traced back to some plant product.

McNuggets may conjure up an image of breaded pieces of sliced chicken breast, but they are hardly that.  More like deboned breast ground into a paste held together with sodium phosphate.  To make nuggets, salt, ice and sodium phosphate are churned together with ground white meat.  The phosphate solubilizes some of the protein in the meat which then forms a matrix that traps fat and glues the meat together.  It also improves the moisture holding capacity of the product, preventing it from drying out during frying.  Canola, corn, soybean or hydrogenated soybean oils are used to fry the nuggets, and this is where some of the silliness boils over.

“What do McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and Silly Putty have in common?” asks Joe Mercola, who claims to have the most-visited health site on the web.  The answer is dimethyl polysiloxane, which is the major component of Silly Putty and is added as an anti-foaming agent to the oil used to fry chicken nuggets.  Of course Mercola’s irrational implication is that you wouldn’t want to eat something that is also found in Silly Putty.  Ridiculous!  Do we eschew salt because it is used to de-ice streets, or water because it is an essential ingredient of cement?  Dimethyl polysiloxane is an approved additive for frying oils at a level of roughly 5 parts per million.  Like any chemical, there is a dose at which it becomes toxic.  What is that dose?  Well, you would have to eat about 10,000 nuggets at one sitting to approach any sort of toxic level.  I suspect at that point you would have a few problems other than dimethyl polysiloxane toxicity.  And just think.  Have you seen any warnings about toxicity on Silly Putty?  Although I wouldn’t recommend it, you could probably eat the stuff.

Thinking, though, for web gurus seems to be a challenge.  Consider the matter of tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), which Mercola reveals is an “artificial antioxidant derived from petroleum and is a form of butane.”  This nonsense is parroted by Pollan, who references the “Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives” by Ruth Winter, another brilliant mind.  TBHQ has absolutely nothing to do with butane, a common component of lighter fluid.  The molecule just happens to have a fragment composed of four carbon atoms which in chemical terminology is “butyl.”  This confusion isn’t surprising from Ms. Winter who, according to her book, doesn’t know the difference between phosphate and phosphorus, and thinks that phosphates are used in tracer bullets and incendiary bombs. 

True, TBHQ is made from compounds derived from petroleum.  So what?  It isn’t the origin of a substance that matters, it’s what we know about its toxicity that counts.  Winter correctly states that 1 gram can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation and collapse.”  That’s correct, but given that TBHQ is allowed in oil to an extent of 0.02%, you would have to eat over 11 pounds of McNuggets to reach that level.  I’ll agree with Winter on one thing though.  British McNuggets are a better choice than American.  Not because they don’t contain or TBHQ, which they don’t, but because they contain 25% less fat.

Marion Nestle, an accomplished nutrition professor and author correctly dismisses the concerns about dimethyl polysiloxane and TBHQ, but chimes in with advice about “not eating any food with ingredients you can’t pronounce.”  Does that mean we shouldn’t consume anything that contains 4-methylthiobutyl isothiocyanate or epigallocatechin gallate?  We would have to give up cabbage and tea.  Conversely, are we to assume that if we can pronounce it, we can eat it?  “Arsenic” and “cyanide” are pretty easy to pronounce.  And being quite adept at pronouncing chemical terms, can I assume that I can eat anything? 

Certainly, Chicken McNuggets are not an icon of nutrition.  But neither are they a “McFrankenstein creation made of elements not used in home cooking,” as paradoxically described by a New York State judge in his ruling dismissing a complaint by two teenagers that deceptive marketing by McDonalds had caused them to become obese.  In truth, the kids’ problems were the same as that of Melodi and Latreasa.  They let their bellies rule their minds.


Print | posted on Thursday, January 20, 2011 10:13 PM

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