Some Skeptical Clarity to the Unrottable McDonald’s Burger Videos/Photos

I’m sure you’ve seen (or at least heard about) the photo project where a plain McDonald’s hamburger has been left out for a half-year now, and it hasn’t rotted away.  Well, I wanted to point you to an article Dr. Steven Novella wrote over at Skepticblog and Neurologica: The Burger “Experiments”.  His view is that the videos and photos are misleading and very bad science.

The infamous hamburger at 180 days

The takeaways:

I note that McDonald’s hamburgers are thin and thoroughly cooked, and will therefore dry out quickly (especially in a dry environment) – too quickly for mold to form. Thoroughly cooked meat should also be free of bacteria to cause rotting. So in the end you will have a dried hard patty, but it will not become moldy nor will it rot.

I do not think there is anything inherent to the ingredients of the hamburger that will significantly affect whether or not it molds or rots – which is the exact implication of these YouTube videos. In order to conclude that it is the hamburger ingredients that are to blame, experiments that control for thickness, degree of cooking, and environment need to be done so that the property of the burger itself is isolated as a variable.

He also spends some time discussing how taking ONE hamburger from ONE store and subjecting it to ONE test makes for ONE interesting observation, yes, but that it’s not nearly enough to use to make big sweeping conclusions like the McDonald’s alarmists are doing.

A similar article over at Salon interviewed some food experts who discussed how things like cooking temperature and fat content can have an effect on the spoilage of a food product.

“Anything that is high in fat will be low in moisture,” says Barry Swanson, a professor at the Washington State University department of food science. And low moisture means less room for mold to grow.

For better or for worse, McDonald’s is no more a chemical laboratory of secret compounds designed to embalm us from the inside than any other processed food maker. A Happy Meal manages to stay unspoiled because it is fatty, salty and practically empty of nutrients — which, really, are all good reasons to avoid it anyway.

So if you want to avoid McDonald’s, at least do it for the right reasons.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go get a Big Mac…

…Rob T. is lovin’ it.™

(Actually, I prefer the double cheeseburger – it has the right meat-to-bun ratio)


15 Responses to Some Skeptical Clarity to the Unrottable McDonald’s Burger Videos/Photos

  1. littlez2008 says:

    My favorite is the two cheeseburgers meal.

    But for any parents who want the awesome Clone Wars skateboards without the indestructible, salty, fatty meal, be advised that you can buy Happy Meal toys without having to buy a Happy Meal. (This is the kind of knowledge that being married to an over zealous toy collector will get you.) We got three of the skateboards for five dollars and then fed our kid whole wheat pasta, chicken and sweet potatoes as usual.

    • Chris F. says:

      I don’t eat at fast food places or restaurants because the foods are generally unhealthy and full of strange chemicals that can lead to all sort of problems later on in life. Best to stay away from them. Of course, grocery stores aren’t much better.

      • Rob T says:

        “…full of strange chemicals that can lead to all sort of problems later on in life.”

        And what’s your source for this assertion?

  2. DianaG says:

    I’ve seen this topic pop up on all of my skeptical feeds. The people over at Serious Eats (not a skeptical blog, but a food one) is running such an experiment. You can see the original post here:

  3. chanson says:

    I was kind of thinking the same thing when I first read about the half-year-old burger. I was thinking it would be interesting to repeat the experiment with a simple control.

    Take a home-cooked hamburger (of the same thickness, and cooked as thoroughly) and fry your own potatoes, and place them on another plate beside your McDonald’s fare. It might be interesting to compare to another restaurant’s burger and fries as well, and perhaps even compare to some completely different fried fast food (falafel, perhaps? Served with comparable toppings). The results of that experiment might be interesting.

  4. practically empty of nutrients

    Does meat not have nutrients? I understand a happy meal isn’t overflowing in vegetables, but is a hamburger really “empty of nutrients?”

    • Rob T says:

      Yeah, I almost left that line out of the quote from Salon. Using “practically” in there makes it less precise, but still…

      The patty is only 1.8 oz (~50g) before cooking, but does contain 7 or 8 grams of protein (depending on which source you believe).

  5. a Lee says:

    Yeah, but what about the bread? My home load turns green within two or three weeks. This bread looks sterilized. You can’t explain that bread looking THAT fresh~!

    • Rob T says:

      Bread at home is usually kept enclosed in a bag, where moisture is trapped. The experiment illustrated in the article was conducted in a cool, dry area, which will definitely inhibit the growth of anything on the food.

      I’m sure it was hard as a rock, though.

  6. RobAlister says:

    This is sick! Experimentation on the sacred hamburger. They all need to be ashamed of themselves. (just kidding… sort of). I’d like to try some experiments of my own. For some reason I like to look at mold even though it gives me the shivers.

  7. Excellent points. Newsflash: McD’s rots. I have a PhD in mycology, and I set up an experiment with video showing that it does. Including the fries.

  8. Julia says:

    Actually, McDonalds is one of the places that isn’t on my hit list of places not to get food for my daughter (and I’m kind of a “must be whole foods nazi”). But in a pinch, their chicken nuggets and a to-go milk and apples with carmel sauce are a pretty great fast food meal for a kid, I think. Better than some stuff on grocery store shelves marketed to kids.

    On the rotting burger topic – McDonalds gets its meat from large distributors who wash the meat in ammonia in order to make sure it is safe of e-coli. This actually isn’t a rumor and the companies are proud of it for reducing the risk of food borne diseases. Whether or not that is harmful to health is not something I have enough information on – but I do think it would add to beef not decaying as quickly as one would expect because it has had a double whammy of killing bacteria – both with the ammonia and high cooking temperatures.

  9. benirleciel says:

    I’d never seen that, but I agree with this post. McDonald’s serves food that is essentially preserved.

    However, I’d like to point out that beef jerky, for example, can stay un-molded *in a car* (under the driver’s seat, to be exact, just a kick away from the toddler’s car-seat) for… a really long time. At least as long as that hamburger.

    And yes, even homemade bread will merely dry, not mold, if left out, uncovered, for years. I actually have bread that proves this. We collect the crusts on a plate for ducks. The best way to keep it (if not for eating) is out to dry.

    The french-fries, which should (since they do not require nearly the same level of sterilization), are the most worrisome, but yes, the level of salt explains that completely.

    For example, in Central and South Asia, they have a type of salted yoghurt-cheese ball (don’t love it ’til you’ve tried it, it’s actually awesome) that is set in summer and lasts all year long. It’s a milk product, and they don’t have airtight containers and most of them have no refrigerators (I mean the herders that make it, not the city-dwellers that buy it). It has nothing in it but goat’s milk and salt, and it lasts a really long time. Same with their salted fish.

    Nice to have a post to send people to, should that show up on my FB feed, though. Thanks!

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