McDonald's TBHQ Laced Nuggets Sold in the U.S. but not in Europe? I'm Lovin' It...NOT!

Unless you live under a rock (which these days seems like a great way to get off of the grid, shield yourself from the coming end of the world and decrease the general stress related to living in America in 2010), you have probably heard the news that McDonald's Chicken nuggets sold in the United States contain a food preservative for vegetable oils and fats called TBHQ (Tertiary Butylhydroquinone).  This has been pretty big news.  Just in case you missed it though, the McDonald's chicken nuggets sold in Europe do not contain the same ingredient which when fed in large quantities to rats can increase the risk of cancer.  For better or worse, the Europeans have much stricter regulations for ingredients in pretty much everything from food to personal care products.  The stringent European regulations do not allow the nuggets to contain TBHQ...but so what?

So who else should care about TBHQ in chicken nuggets sold in McDonald's other than consumers in Europe?  According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (or lighter fluid) and it sounds like pretty scary stuff huh?  But let's break this down.

The FDA considers TBHQ G.R.A.S. (or Generally Recognized as Safe) which does not really mean a lot to me.  Still, the FDA only allows for the oil in a nugget to contain 0.02% of the TBHQ.  According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, ingesting amounts as little as one gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Considering kids in the U.S. eat a lot of chicken nuggets from McDonald's, maybe we should all care about what our future generations are being fed as brain food.

The following is an eye opening excerpt from Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, where he writes about ordering some chicken nuggets at McDonald's,  then reading information from a flyer he picks up called ""A Full Serving of Nutrition Facts: Choose the Best Meal for You.":

“The ingredients listed in the flyer suggest a lot of thought goes into a nugget, that and a lot of corn. Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn: the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leeches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative. A couple of other plants take part in the nugget: There's some wheat in the batter, and on any given day the hydrogenated oil could come from soybeans, canola, or cotton rather than corn, depending on the market price and availability.

According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but form a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed food possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the "leavening agents": sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are "anti-foaming agents" like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable. But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to "help preserve freshness." According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.”

Look, I do not think that McDonald's has set out to harm kids in the U.S. but I do think that this is another instance that calls for consumer common sense.  Should your kids be eating McDonald's chicken nuggets?  I do not know.  After weighing all of this information (and more that you can find), that is up to you and your family to decide.  My common sense tells me that it should be an exceedingly rare occurrence for me to allow my daughters to pop a McDonald's chicken nugget into their mouths. 

There are so many other choices that can be made when you are on the run right?  I just wish Subway had a drive through.

3-23-11: Source note for Omnivore's Dilemma Quote

P.S.- People always ask me where I get my organic food and personal care products and I love to tell them about The Green PolkaDot Box! Backed by the Organic Consumer's Association and, you can easily buy NonGMO organic groceries, including Harvest Fresh Organic produce, at wholesale pricing online.  It's like a Sam's club but focused on products for green, healthy living! You can even shop by dietary restrictions like gluten free, vegan or diabetic and it all comes right to your front door. Enjoy!

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