Posted by: Elizabeth Barilleaux | November 4, 2010

The Science of the 14 Year-Old Happy Meal

Halloween is dead and gone and Thanksgiving approaches, so with one foot in the grave and one eye on the gravy boat, I’d like to talk about food decay.  A recent stink has been circulating the internet  over the experimental art of New York Photographer Sally Davies and her everlasting Happy Meal.  So many folks commented, tweeted and brought their own elderly McDonald’s food to light that a follow-up story ran earlier this month.  In fact, Davies’ project is a mere whippersnapper compared to the 14 year-old McMeal of Karen Hanrahan,  but what does all of this graceful aging add up to?  

Based on comments to the web stories, it seems the implication is that if a Happy Meal won’t break down outside your body, what’s it gonna do on the inside?  Given the 47 million people served around the world every day, the answer is pretty clear – it gets processed and excreted.  Standard McDonald fare is not a nutritional powerhouse and if that surprises you, well then I’m shocked that you’re shocked.  Long-term existence, however, does not conclusively prove that a food is loaded with preservatives, has been shellacked or is otherwise indigestible.      

My own sister freely admits to unearthing two Christmas oranges and an apple from the back of her closet while doing a little spring cleaning – fourteen months after the holiday.  All of the fruit had shriveled, but nothing had decayed.  Christmas miracles aside, examples like this illustrate that unpreserved food can avoid rot simply by being in the right place at the right time – namely a dry, lonely corner. 

Although McDonald’s doesn’t give out trade recipes, they do provide very specific ingredient lists for their food, including any added preservatives.   According to their websites, hamburger patties are filler, binder and preservative free.   Citric acid is used to keep the french fries from turning brown – like putting pineapple juice on apples – but it would not be enough to keep them from growing mold.  The buns are the most “treated” element of the Meal and include calcium peroxide as a flour bleaching agent along with calcium propionate and sodium propionate to prevent mold growth.  Mummified white-bread is not so strange, but what about the burger patty and fries?  How do they remain pristine without preservatives?

In nature, decay of any organic matter occurs as a joint venture between bacteria, moisture and warmth.  If any of these conditions don’t make it to the party, the result is a back-handed sort of preservation (much like what is happening to Keith Richards and half the population of Florida).  In the case of the long-lived McProducts, handling and cooking processes drive out a lot of moisture and then salt gets poured on like snow.  Bacteria and mold have a hard time finding any kind of foothold in that environment and thus the self-mummification begins.  As the food loses more moisture, oils become concentrated on the surface, creating a coating that essentially seals the food off from further contamination. 

Fast food will (hopefully) never be a primary source of nutrition – even if top quality ingredients go in, the end result is a greasy, salty cholesterol bullet to the heart.  A delicious bullet, but a bullet nonetheless.  At the end of the day, a fourteen year-old Happy Meal is not such a freak of nature, but I will be concerned if it asks to start driving.



  1. I want to express my admiration of your writing skill and ability to make reader to read the while thing to the end..

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