What Makes the McRib the McRib? McRibbitives.
CSPI Rates the Additives in McDonald's Seasonal Pork Sensation
Few fast-food items have achieved the cultural prominence of the McRib. Object of satire,conspiracy theory, and fevered online speculation, the McRib typically appears on McDonald's menus with great fanfare only to vanish, fleetingly, some time later.
As Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic, we experience the McRib as (quasi-) foodstuff, as marketing campaign, as cult object, as Internet meme, but those experiences don't sufficiently explain it.
To better explain the McRib, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken a closer look at a few of its chemical ingredients. There's more to the McRib, it turns out, than bun, pork, sauce, pickles and onions.
McRib Pork Patty: BHA, propyl gallate, and citric acid are used as preservatives in the patty. While citric acid is safe, CSPI recommends that consumers avoid BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and propyl gallate. The Food and Drug Administration permits the use of BHA in food, even though its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, says that BHA is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." It is often used with propyl gallate to prevent fats and oils from spoiling. CSPI says that propyl gallate may be an endocrine disruptor and needs to be better studied.
McRib Sauce: After water, the main ingredient in the sauce is high-fructose corn syrup. It's not true that HFCS is worse than regular sugar, but CSPI recommends everyone cut back on both. Xanthan gum, which is secreted by bacteria, is safe, at least in this application. (Used in a product called SimplyThick, it has caused problems in infants.) Sodium benzoate appears to be safe, though it causes allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. It is unclear exactly which of several caramel color varieties is used in McRib Sauce, but when it is produced with ammonia, carcinogenic contaminants form. That's been a problem in caramel-colored soft drinks, but regardless of how the caramel coloring in McRib Sauce was produced, the amount one would consume is small and not a problem. Good for McDonald's for using beet powder to color the sauce instead of Red 3 (a carcinogen) or Red 40 (one of several dyes which in Europe must be labeled as having "an adverse effect on activity and attention in children").
McRib Bun. The white-flour bun, like a lot of commercially made breads, features preservatives, conditioners, and other additives. The bun contains partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, which provides under half a gram of artificial trans fat so McDonald’s can state "0 grams" in its nutrition information (the FDA has tentatively concluded that partially hydrogenated oil should not be used because it increases heart disease risk). Dextrose is a sugar and helps provide color in baked bread. Ammonium sulfateis a safe leavening agent. Sodium stearoyl lactylate is a safe dough conditioner, and diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglycerides, or DATEM, and mono- and diglycerides are safe emulsifiers. Calcium propionate is a safe preservative. The bun also has dollops ofazodicarbonamide, monocalcium phosphate, and calcium peroxide.
Pickle Slices. McDonald's pickle slices contain polysorbate 80, a safe emulsifier; potassium sorbate, a safe additive which inhibits mold growth; and alum and calcium chloride.
The pork, bun, sauce, and pickle slices all contain salt, which CSPI says is probably the single most harmful ingredient in the food supply. Excess salt in the diet contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and other health problems. CSPI has repeatedly urged the FDA to set reasonable limits on salt in various categories of foods. The McRib has 980 milligrams of sodium (about half a day's worth) as well as 10 grams of saturated fat (also half a day's worth).
"Scary-sounding additives aside, it's just as well that the McRib's annual disappearance is as certain as its annual arrival," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "It's basically 500 calories worth of white flour and factory-farmed, highly processed, and fatty meat that has been flavored, texturized, colored, and preserved with a bunch of both safe and questionable additives."
It is not known when this year's McRib "season" will end.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).