What’s So Special About McDonald’s Fries?

Ah, McDonald’s French Fries. According to a poll we recently ran here, 48% of about 42,000 of you prefer this restaurant’s slender tan starch sticks to all the other restaurant tuber cutting offerings, with this percentage more than double the next runner up which was a blanket choice of “Other”- i.e. nearly all other restaurant french fries combined. While many view McDonald’s as a hamburger joint, the truth is, beyond in the present day McDonald’s making about 1/3 of their revenue from their franchises on real estate (all once causing Ray Kroc to quip he wasn’t in the hamburger business, but rather “My business is real estate”), McDonald’s came to dominate the world of fast food for primarily one reason- their french fries, with an astounding 1 out of every 200 potatoes grown in the world today used to make these salty sticks of potato guts. Which is extra good for the company as french fries are also one of the most profitable non-beverage items on the menu. So just how did these french fries come to be? What exactly is in them and how are they made? Why were they the center of a surprisingly bitter and occasionally riotous and deadly fight? And just who invented french fries at all in the first place?

Well, tuck in ladies and gents, and let’s do a deep fried dive into the history of the french fry and its perfected version at McDonald’s, shall we?

The Origin of the French Fry

Let us start, then, at the beginning. Around 14 billion years ago, the universe sprang into existence with a bang… Wait wait wait… Perhaps we’ve gone too far back. Let’s skip ahead a bit in the story of the French Fry and then the perfected Golden Archers version. Around 14 billion years after the universe sprang into existence, give or take, humans had not only become a thing, but also began humaning. During the process of all this, the potato, while perhaps not as advanced on the evolutionary chain (yet), was nonetheless busy potatoing. One day a human observed this underground potatoing- which human having been unfortunately lost to history, but we like to think his name was Greg- and Greg was all like “Get in my belly.” And the potato didn’t really have a choice because it was a potato… Then other humans not named Greg also wanted to see what it was like to put potatoes in their bellies without the potato’s consent, and humans always being dicks to other living things, it caught on from there in parts of the Americas.

As for the fried stick version. Well, we need to fast-forward a bit because Greg really missed the boat on this one. Freaking Greg man…

Potatoes were first introduced to Europe through the Spanish, who originally encountered them in 1537. On that momentous occasion one Jimenez de Quesada and his men were dutifully raping and piliaging other humans instead of potatoes like Greg, and otherwise dominating for king and country in Colombia. While doing all this, de Quesada and his men were also suffering from near starvation at points, we can only presume because- karma. During such cessation of satiating with sustenance, they found in some of the conquered native’s food stuffs Greg’s potatoes, which the Spanish initially called “truffles”. Much like Greg who first ripped the potato from its cozy home in the ground, the Spanish were like “Don’t mind if I do!” and put the potato in their food holes.

Around 20 years later, potatoes were brought back to Spain and also quickly introduced to Italy, so that other humans could put them in their food holes too. At this time, the potatoes were still quite small and bitter and didn’t grow well in either Spain or Italy. However, when a mommy human and a daddy potato really love each other, they breed even better potatoes that gradually become larger and less bitter and more suitable to their new climates. As this happened, the plant slowly caught on elsewhere in Europe. However, it initially met with quite a bit of resistance owing to the fact that the Europeans were convinced potatoes caused a variety of diseases and were also thought to be poisonous by some.. (It should be noted here that they had good reason to assume they were poisonous as parts of the plant actually are, which is probably how the rumor got started. You see, much like with humans, if you eat the wrong part of the human, as fun as it might seem at the time, you’ll sometimes get sick after. But this doesn’t mean the other parts of the human aren’t good to nom when the mood strikes. As long as it’s consensual. Don’t be a Greg. Those poor potatoes…)

In any event, later, the French got into the potato lovin’ game which helped more widely popularize the tuber. And all of this, thanks to a French army medical officer named Antoine-Augustine Parmentier, who very famously championed the potato throughout France and parts of Europe.

At this time, the French had previously used potatoes primarily for hog feed and seemingly rarely ate them themselves, as noted due to concern over diseases. In fact, in 1748, the French Parliament even banned cultivation of potatoes as they were convinced potatoes caused leprosy. However, while a prisoner in Prussia during the Seven Years War, Parmentier was forced to cultivate and eat potatoes and found the French notions about the potato just weren’t true.

Thus, when he came back to France, he began championing the potato as a potential major food source, and in 1772 helped get the Paris Faculty of Medicine to proclaim that potatoes were edible for humans, though Parmentier still encountered significant resistance and wasn’t even allowed to grow potatoes in his garden at the Invalides hospital where he worked as a pharmacist.

Parmentier then began a more aggressive campaign to promote the potato in France, hosting dinners featuring potatoes with such notable dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, King Louis XVI, and Queen Marie Antoinette, who incidentally has gotten a bad wrap from history mostly just because the victors write the popular history. See our video on the subject and her tragic life and death.

In any event, Parmentier also would hire armed guards to surround his potato patch, to try to convince people that what was in the patch was very valuable. He would then tell the guards to accept any bribes they were offered by people and let them “steal” the potatoes. In the end though, necessity is the mother of all advancement, and it took a famine in 1785 for the potato to become widely popular in France. Within a decade after this, the plant was being grown on a massive scale in the country, including at the royal gardens at Tuileries, where the gardens were converted into potato fields for a time.

This finally brings us to the perfected form of the potato- the French Fry. It was during this span of time that the French either invented or learned to make so-called french fries, with these rapidly becoming popular across the country, even commonly sold by push-cart vendors on the streets of Paris under the name “frites”.

Now, it should be noted that this all happened in the late 18th century, which was as much as 100 years after some claim the Belgians were supposedly already making so called “French” fries”. But by other arguments, this all happened around the same time for both the French and the Belgians. And it really isn’t totally clear from hard evidence what the truth is here.

Some accounts indicate that the Belgians were possibly frying up thin strips of potatoes as early as the late 17th century in the Meuse Valley between Dinant and Liège, in Belgium, though, again, better documented evidence wasn’t until the late 18th century. How it is speculated they came up with the idea was that, in this area, it was very common for the people to fry up small fish as a staple for their meals. However, when the rivers froze up thick enough, it tended to make it somewhat difficult to get fish. So instead of frying up fish in these times, they would cut up potatoes in long thin slices, and fry them up as they did the fish.

Giving some credence to this story is that the Spanish controlled much of what is now modern day Belgium at the time the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe. So, at least, the Belgians probably were among the first to have a crack at the potato, in terms of thinking up ways to prepare food from potatoes.

Going back to French fries and who actually invented them, it should also be noted that, shortly before the potato became popular in France, the Franco-Austrian war was going on, much of which took place around modern day Belgium. So it’s possible that the French soldiers were introduced to fries by the Belgians at this time and, a couple decades later when the potato became popular in France, these former soldiers then introduced the preparation method to the rest of France. Or it’s possible the French came up with the idea on their own and spread them to Belgium around the same time; or that both came up with the idea independently. It, after all, not being rocket surgery to think to dice up potatoes in various ways and fry them.

Whatever the case, it was the French who seem to be the ones that spread fries to their vastly superior in all ways neighbors in Britain, and, in turn, to Britain’s brother from another mother, The United States. Noteworthy here, in 1802, Thomas Jefferson had the White House chef, Frenchman Honoré Julien, prepare “potatoes served in the French manner” for a dinner party. He described these as “Potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings”. This is one of the earliest references to fried potato strips being referred to as “French”.

Going back to the worldwide spread of popularity of the so-called french fry, it was, in turn, the Americans, through fast food chains, that eventually popularly introduced them to the rest of the non-European world under the name “French fries”. Ironically, because of this latter spread by American fast food chains, in many parts of the non-European world, “French fries” are sometimes called “American fries” because, ‘Merica Fuck Ya.

Creating Perfection- Inventing the McDonald’s French Fry

This all now brings us to the McDonald’s fries which were seemingly kind of accidentally made extra delicious thanks to a supplier issue, combined with a need for longer lasting oil. On this one, the McDonald’s brothers got their first taste of the restaurant industry via their dad, who sadly was not named Ronald, but, instead, Patrick. Senior McDonald started a hamburger and hot-dog stand called “The Airdome” in 1937 in Monrovia California and, in so doing, indirectly changed the fast-food world forever. After gaining some experience and money with this, his sons Richard and Maurice McDonald then branched out on their own, making a classic drive-in style barbeque restaurant in San Bernardino that did quite well.

Eventually they got to thinking how they could improve the restaurant, with the pair noting they were particularly inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly line process. Thus, they began brainstorming how to streamline several aspects of their restaurant system to be vastly more efficient in pretty much every possible way a restaurant can be, including creating an assembly line process of food preparation and getting rid of waiters. In all of this, helping to significantly decrease prices and time from order to getting your food, and helping to give birth to the more modern incarnation of the fast-food restaurant experience we all know today. And so it was that after shutting down their restaurant for a few months to re-tool and train their staff in 1948, they launched this version of their establishment and what they called their “Speedee Service System”, with one of their staple products being their salted, phallic shaped potato innards.

While today using french fries as a staple product in a restaurant geared toward serving customers more or less immediately upon order is par for the course, at the time it was not given that french fries are actually a pretty labor and time intensive creation from start to finish- needing at minimum to peel the potatoes, dice them appropriately, rinse off excess starch, then dry them, and then after all that, finally, spend some time frying them up. And heaven forbid they get cold, as cold fries are generally not awesome. Or heaven forbid you slice and dice them too early, as they also have a tendency to discolor rapidly if you do so. Further, at this point, all of this was more or less done by hand on site. As such, many similar burger places of the era who were trying to focus on speed, but didn’t have the McDonald’s brothers’ assembly line process, would go with the French Fries’ rather attractive cousin, the potato chip.

But, as noted, the McDonald’s brothers wanted to go with French Fries instead. So just how did they come up with their iconic fry and who all was involved? Well, prepare to get extra hungry my friends…

To start, as to one of the secrets of their extra delicious taste in making their fries, beyond, at the time, taking advantage of the San Bernardino desert air to dry the product outside for later extra crispiness, critically they purchased their frying oil from a small company called Interstate Foods. At the time for various reasons including extended shelf life, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was typically used for making french fries. However, Interstate Foods did not have the needed equipment to hydrogenate the oil. So, instead, they used a blend of 7% vegetable oil and 93% beef tallow in order to get more or less the same shelf life results without hydrogenating the oil- with the specific blend used by McDonald’s eventually being dubbed Formula 47, in homage to the fact that it cost 47 cents (about $6 today) for a burger, fries, and shake at McDonald’s at the time.

Whether the McDonald brothers chose this company’s oil intentionally because of this and the flavor it imparted in their fries, or just because it was cheap and readily available to them isn’t clear. Though presumably given how much thought they were putting into everything else, they must have tried out different offerings and compared taste. But whatever the case, the result of this gave them the basis for what is today the most popular potato stick on the planet, with the beef tallow flavor being key to all of this, even today when they’ve moved away from using beef tallow for face palmy reasons we’ll get into shortly.

Beyond this slightly unique oil to fry it in and the process of drying out the potatoes a specific amount of time for extra crispiness, at this stage of the McDonald’s fry evolution, there really wasn’t anything else special done other than salting. This is in contrast to today, where the process is a bit more complex as we’ll also get into shortly.

But their fries were a huge hit, not just with customers, but ultimately they were also one of the huge selling points of the company to none other than Ray Kroc when he encountered McDonald’s and then did his thing to help turn it into the largest restaurant chain in the world.

Although, as a brief aside, contrary to popular belief, the brothers had already begun the process of expansion, with, by the time Kroc encountered them, the pair having sold 21 franchises- though franchising their process, rather than the brand- but they were also operating 9 outlets at the time. But going back to Kroc, he would later state of the McDonald’ brothers’ french fry, “They lavished attention on it. I didn’t know it then, but one day I would, too. The French fry would become almost sacrosanct for me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously.” He also states, “One of my suppliers told me ‘Ray, you know you aren’t in the hamburger business at all. You’re in the French-fry business. I don’t know how the livin’ hell you do it, but you’ve got the best French fries in town, and that’s what’s selling folks on your place.’

Speaking of Ray Kroc and the more modern incarnation of the McDonald’s French Fry, an issue quickly arose as the company began to rapidly expand. As McDonald’s spokeswoman Lisa McComb recounts, in the early 1960s, “We had 175 different local produce suppliers around the country providing potatoes for french fries. So Ray Kroc was looking to solve this inconsistency problem; he wanted the fries to have a certain taste, color and texture.” Kroc even began making suppliers use hydrometers to make sure the moisture content of the potatoes he was purchasing was consistent across suppliers, something that can vary in potatoes depending on where and how they are grown and stored. There was also the issue that for a few months in the summer, their preferred russet potato wasn’t really available in the quantities they needed.

Enter McDonald’s franchise owner Edwin Traisman, who had previously worked as a food researcher on products such as Cheez Whiz, individually packaged cheese slices, as well as was involved in the development of instant pudding, among other food products. Traisman had left the world of food development after walking into a McDonald’s one day and asking a worker sweeping the floor how he could go about opening a franchise location. Funny enough, the worker he asked was apparently none other than Ray Kroc himself according to Traisman’s wife.

Speaking of Traisman’s wife, Dorothy, as a quick aside here, when he opened his franchise, Traisman also pioneered hiring women at McDonald’s franchises. Something that sounds silly today, but at the time was against the rules, and, according to Dorothy, “almost caused him to lose the franchise. It was quite innovative.”

The past everybody…

Fast-forwarding to their fry supply problem, knowing Traisman’s background, Kroc tasked him, along with food scientist Ken Strong, to figure out a way to freeze fresh cut potatoes so that when later cooked, they’d be indistinguishable from non-frozen fries. The aforementioned McDonald’s spokeswoman Lisa McComb states ot this, “Ed determined that the amount of moisture in the potato before it was frozen was key to its flavor and firmness and he created a process of reducing moisture in the potato prior to freezing.” Strong and he then improved on this via developing the quick-fry and blanching system before freezing, and the general process for making McDonald’s fries as they are today was patented and put in place.

Of course, this only solved part of the puzzle. The expansion still required an insane amount of potatoes, and consistency in the base potato product. On this one, enter J.R. Simplot. At the age of 14 in 1923, Simplot got in an argument with his dear old pappy and then dropped out of school and moved out. From here, his life pretty much resembled the parable of the mouse who fell into a bucket of cream and just never stopped struggling to climb out, eventually managing to churn the cream into butter, at which point, he walked out. Simplot’s own journey towards becoming a billionaire started with just $20 (about $350 today)- money his mother had given him when he left home. Now, him being just 14 years old and this being shortly before the Great Depression, you might think the young Simplot was about to have a bad time. But you’d be wrong.

First, beyond renting a room for $1 a night, he used most of the rest of the money to purchase interest bearing scrips from local teachers who were paid this way and wanted to convert their scrips to cash quickly. Shortly thereafter, he managed to sell the scrips for a profit, and then rinsed and repeated this until he earned enough to buy a rifle and some piglets, the latter being especially cheap because of a downturn in the market at the time. He then used the rifle to shoot wild horses, which he sold the hides of, then mixed their remains and potatoes together to feed the pigs, cooking the slop for them on fires made of sage brush he’d collected. By the time the pigs were grown the market had recovered somewhat, and he sold them for a pretty massive profit. He then used the money from that venture to buy a small potato farm. And he just kept rinsing and repeating and expanding, and a mere 10 years after buying that first potato farm, he was the largest supplier of potatoes in the entire western half of the United States, and soon to be one of the major suppliers of the U.S. army during WWII. Along the way, he also expanded out to other related businesses that benefited the farming, making much of what his company needed, from fertilizer to animal feed to lumber to oil, as well as starting some random companies like running several ski resorts. Later, he even invested $1 million into a small company a couple engineers in Idaho had dreamed up- the result of that investment being Micron Technology, currently worth about $100 billion.

We’ll save Simplot’s full fascinating story to rise to be one of the richest people in the world for another day. But going back to his potato ventures and McDonald’s french fry issues as they expanded, Simplot was there to save the day, not only in the volume of potatoes he could supply, but in his ability to do it year round, partially thanks to a freezing process his own company had come up with about a decade before at the behest of one of his employees, Ray Dunlap. Simplot had initially resisted the idea of freezing potatoes noting, “You freeze spuds and they will go to mush.” But others, such as Olof Pierson, had very recently cracked the problem and invented the frozen french fry, so Simplot went ahead and provided Dunlap with a specialized large freezer unit anyway and, a bit of work and experimentation later, Simplot was sampling french fries made from Dunlap’s frozen product and noted after tasting them, “My God, good product.” He initially tried to market the frozen french fry for home consumers in 1953, but it didn’t really catch on at this point.

Needless to say, with about a decade of expertise in freezing french fries, and being one of the largest growers of potatoes in the world, McDonald’s and Simplot couldn’t help but get in bed with one another. And that’s exactly what they did… metaphorically speaking… after a handshake agreement in the mid-1960s between Simplot and Kroc, with Simplot even promising to build an entire factory to start mass producing the frozen fries for McDonald’s using Traisman and Strong’s patented process. This, all combined, allowed for an extremely consistent product year round and to all locations, while also cutting down on the work and time needed at the actual restaurants to make the fries- no longer needing to hand cut them on location. While McDonald’s has many other french fry suppliers, including Bill Gates as we’ll get into later in the Bonus Facts, to this day Simplot is still one of their largest.

But the story of inventing the modern McDonald’s French Fry doesn’t end here.

The next stage of the evolution of these golden sticks of goodness came about not from scaling and consistency issues but, rather, because of an unrelated heart attack, which resulted in McDonald’s having to fundamentally alter their fry making in a way that, ironically, likely increased the risk of heart attacks…

In this one, enter self-made millionaire Phil Sokolof who was quite displeased about the heart attack he had at 43 in 1966 and ultimately formed the National Heart Savers Association who eventually squarely targeted McDonald’s and their burgers and beef tallow fries as a major culprit for heart disease, including Sokolof spending over $15 million (about $60 million today) campaigning against McDonald’s and other restaurants about this to get them all to lower the cholesterol in their foods. On the targeting McDonald’s side, this included one such full page ad he took out in the New York Times in 1990 proclaiming, “McDonald’s, Your Hamburgers Have Too Much Fat.”

For shame Mr. Sokolof. It’s not the burger’s fault they are fat. Their parents were literally cows who were never given proper nutritional and fitness education. Don’t fat shame.

In any event, moving on to fries, in the summer of 1990, Sokolof squared off with McDonald’s Vice President Dick Starman on Good Morning America, stating, “They just took chicken skin out of their Chicken McNugget three weeks ago. Tell them about Egg McMuffins!!! Tell them about your beef tallow in your french fries!!!”

Mmmmmm…. Beef Tallow…

A couple months later, McDonald’s decided to remove their beef tallow and replace it with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil instead… Which as everyone knows totally and in all ways reduces heart disease… Nothing like trans fats to lube the arteries up with.

Of course, beyond the health issue with trans fats that people weren’t super aware of at the time, the other issue with the switch in oils was that the fries then wouldn’t taste like McDonald’s fries anymore.

This is something oft’ lamented by many who claim the original beef tallow version was markedly different and superior. Although, it’s difficult to say if people are just being nostalgic here.

That said, for what it’s worth, shortly after the switch, in an interview in 1995, none other than Julia Child noted of the change, “The french fries were very good. and then the nutritionists got at them. And it turned out to be erroneous that beef tallow fat was bad and lard was bad and so forth. And so they changed it to some type of nutritionist oil. And they’ve been kind of limp ever since. And I never really eat them, which is too bad… I’m always very strong about criticizing them, hoping maybe they’ll change [back].”

Whatever the case here, today the making of the so-called third edition of McDonald’s fries has never been more well known, thanks to McDonald’s themselves getting slightly annoyed with all the rumors that their fries aren’t made from mutilating innocent potatoes that were otherwise minding their own business, but rather formed from potato paste. Thus, McDonald’s in recent years released various articles and videos demonstrating at a high level their fry making process and ingredients.

As for this, first, once the issue with trans fats became well known, McDonald’s made a slight change to the vegetable oil used to get rid of virtually all the trans fat back around 2007. But beyond this, otherwise nothing much has seemingly changed from version 2 of the fry, though it is noteworthy that there is slight variance from country to country on exact ingredients. But in general the complete list of ingredients in the final product include:

  • Completely innocent life form otherwise minding its own business called the potato
  • Canola and Soybean oil made from the bodily fluids of other murdered living things.
  • Hydrogenated version of that Soybean blood.
  • Corn oil because Big Corn has to get their hands into everything.
  • Hydrolized Wheat because F- wheat and its desire to live, that’s why. We have fries that we need to not clump together!
  • Citric Acid
  • Dimethylpolysiloxane
  • Dextrose
  • Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate
  • Hydrolized Milk. Because we can’t let vegans have nice things. They literally are all unabashed plant murders.
  • Delicious, life giving Salt
  • Tert-Butylhydroquinone, which is totally a word I didn’t just make up and, much like thinking about baseball and your grandmother, helps the oil last longer… I mean, maybe not thinking about YOUR grandmother. Because, let’s just say gam gam has got it going on…
  • And the most important and mysterious ingredient of all- Natural Flavor, which we’ll get into what this is in a bit.

Now, while you might think that’s an awful lot of ingredients for a simple french fry, despite their intimidating names, most of these additives are simply meant to ensure the stringent location-to-location uniformity McDonald’s food is famous for. For example, dextrose gives the fries their distinctive golden-brown colour, sodium acid pyrophosphate prevents discolouration during freezing, citric acid and tert-butylhydroquinone prevent the fries from oxidizing and turning grey, and dimethylpolysiloxane isn’t just there to get me to stumble over this sentence, but also used as an anti-foaming agent that prevent the frying oil from splattering. But while these ingredients may raise some eyebrows, none have generated as much controversy as the last item on the list: “natural flavour.” And the source of this controversy? Well, we’ll get to that in the next section on fries and murder… DUN DUN DUN… OK, maybe not actually murder. But riots and violence anyway… Although we are sure at least once in history someone has murdered their girlfriend when she inevitably says she doesn’t want fries, but then eats all your fries.

FYI, that’s how you know she’s ready to become a wife.

But going back to explicitly how the McDonald’s fries are made, no potato paste required. And, in fact, McDonald’s states they don’t even use GMO potatoes, opting for mostly non-GMO shepody, pentland dell, and varieties of russet for their glorious golden sticks of goodness.

So, starting with the innocent potato, beyond using a rather sophisticated Automatic Defect Removal equipment to get rid of any potatoes and fries that aren’t sexy enough, in a nutshell, much like when first entering prison, if Shawshank Redemption has taught me anything, the previously living potatoes are first stripped naked, in this case via having their flesh peeled from their bodies via a steam peeler. They are then subjected to high pressure water spray on their now exposed innards, during which the 65 mph or so water cannon they find themselves in forces the tubers through a cutter grate for maximal potato mutilation.

After this, Byron Hadley then insults them and their mothers for maximal psychological damage. They are then blanched and dipped in dextrose and sodium acid pyrophosphate, with, again, the ends of making sure the potato doesn’t turn a rather unappetizing gray color on the latter sodium acid pyrophosphate, and on the former dextrose to make sure you get a consistent golden color in the end product regardless of the time of year and slight variance in crop, and across all McDonald’s throughout the world. McDonald’s also states the blanching, besides imparting an extra bit of sadistic torture for our innocent potato friends, helps soften their innards for better texture when mashed in our food holes.

From here, the strips of potato flesh are dried and then the beef flavoring and other such of the aforementioned ingredients are added when the remnants of the potatoes’ broken and mutilated bodies are dipped in insanely hot oil for an approximately 1 minute pre-fry. No doubt wondering when it will all just end, at this point the fried potato flesh is flash frozen while traveling along about a 50 meter track running through a freezing tunnel. From here, they are packaged and sent to restaurants the world over.

Once at the restaurant, they are fried up in the same special blend of vegetable oil and beef flavoring again, salted, served, and shortly thereafter their lives flash before their eyes one final time as they are placed in your top food sphincter, mashed up and mixed with your mouth juices, and then massaged by your esophageal muscles until they find their way to your internal food processing sack, where they are treated to an acid bath. After this, their nutrients are sucked from their ground up flesh into your system… All leaving their final sad remains to be combined with the internal waste produced as a result of our pointless lives. Finally, this all combines to make the excrement that is pushed out your bottom food sphincter and flushed down the toilet, much like you did with all your potential and opportunities in life, Jimmy.

Fries AND MURDER (… or just violence WHATEVER. Got to keep you reading so I have money to feed my french fry addiction. Don’t judge. We all have our cross to bear…)

It should at this point be noted that the type of oil used to fry McDonald’s fries has not been the only major controversy surrounding them. Many people also have had a beef with them… Because of the beef, it turns out. And while you might be tempted to think McDonald’s switching away from beef tallow would solve any such beef with the beef. It turns out, the opposite happened, and nothing to do with flavor or health. Literal riots ensued… AND MURDER (according to the words that just came out of my mouth.)

While, as noted, intended as a means of improving the healthiness of the McDonald’s menu, the switch from delicious beef tallow to vegetable oil convinced many that the chain’s fries were now vegetarian. This attracted a whole new demographic of customers who had previously shied away from the chain because of their preference for plant, instead of animal, murder. But now with the fry production seemingly safely only killing plants, as is vegetarians’ sadistic preference, McDonald’s was back on the menu.

But then, on April 9, 2001, an article by Viji Sundaram appeared in the newspaper India-West titled Where’s the Beef? It’s in Your French Fries. In the article, Sundaram tells the story of Anand Kulkarni and Hitesh Shah, software engineers from Los Angeles who regularly ate at McDonald’s. Kulkarni was a devout Hindu and thus forbidden from eating beef while Shah was a follower of the Jain Dharma, a Hindu sect that opposes all forms of killing. So extreme is this aversion that certain extreme devout Jains refuse to wash any part of their bodies except their hands to avoid killing bacteria and sometimes carefully sweep the sidewalk before them with a broom so as not to step on any insects.

Due to their religious beliefs the men’s typical McDonald’s order consisted of a veggie burger, a soda, and an order of fries, all of which were vegetarian – or so they thought. But then Shah read an article revealing that the supposedly vegetarian fries actually contained beef, hidden behind the innocuous ingredient label “natural flavour.” Enraged at being deceived into violating his religious beliefs, Shah called McDonald’s customer service and demanded to know whether the fries did indeed contain beef and, if so, why this was not listed as an ingredient. The McDonald’s representative, Megan Magee, replied that the fries did indeed contain a “minuscule amount” of beef flavouring, but that this was not listed because FDA regulations did not require the ingredients of natural flavourings to be broken down. Sundaram’s article set off a storm of controversy, especially in India where 84% of the population is Hindu. Violent protests erupted across the country, with protestors smashing restaurant windows and smearing statues of Ronald McDonald with cow dung, while nationalist politicians like prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for the immediate shutdown of McDonalds’ 27 Indian locations. Of the scandal, Shanka Gankar of the ultra-nationalist Bajrang Dal party stated:

“They have betrayed the faith of millions of our countrymen by serving food cooked in beef fat. It is unpardonable. If they don’t close the outlets with immediate effect, we will be forced to take extreme steps.”

Meanwhile, in early May, Harish Bharti, a Hindu lawyer from Seattle, launched a class-action lawsuit against McDonald’s, quipping that:

“They say billions and billions served. I say billions and billions deceived.”

Burn… You earn that sweet, sweet class action money Bharti.

The suit was filed on behalf of law students from George Washington University, fellow concerned Hindus, and secular vegetarian advocacy groups like the Vegetarian Legal Action Network. This group, which represents nearly 15 million vegetarians across the United States, had previously petitioned McDonald’s to fully disclose its products’ ingredients, but to no avail. As James Pizzirusso, the VLAN’s founder, stated:

“Corporate America needs to pay attention to consumers who avoid certain food products for religious or health reasons, or because they have allergies.They say they are complying with the law in terms of disclosing their ingredients, but they should go beyond the law.”

Meanwhile, the Hindu case against McDonald’s was passionately stated by Brij Sharma, a Seattle electrical engineer and one of the defendants named in the class-action suit:

“I feel sick in the morning every day, like I want to vomit. Now it is always there in my mind that I have done this sin.”

Bharthi and his clients were soon joined by six Hindus from British Columbia, Canada, including Harjinder Kainth, who claimed that a McDonald’s employee assured him that the restaurant’s fries were indeed vegetarian. A second lawsuit against McDonald’s Canada was filed later that month.

In response, McDonald’s Canada denied ever claiming that its fries were vegetarian, stating:

“In fact, at McDonald’s Canada, we have always prepared our french fries in a blend of beef and vegetable oil. Furthermore, this information has always been readily available to our Canadian customers through our Food Facts brochure…the lawsuit filed in British Columbia is totally misguided and based on completely unfounded and incorrect information.”

Furthermore, the parent company revealed that while beef flavouring was included in fries prepared in North America, these ingredients were omitted in markets like India with religious or moral restrictions against eating beef and other meat products….

So, ya, as ever humans, as a part of the pre-riotiing checklist, first make sure what you’re getting upset about is actually reality instead of just something someone said or only exists in your head… Really this applies to all facets of life and anger, not just riotous fun.

Nonetheless, back in ‘merica they were using the beef flavouring, and so it was that in June of 2002 McDonalds agreed to pay out a $10 million (about $17 million today) settlement to the 11 named defendants, with we can only presume the vast majority of this going to their lawyers as in most class action suits, and then McDonald’s issued the following official apology:

“We regret none of you bothered to look up the very publicly available and well known ingredients to our product before eating it, and are now holding us responsible for your own choices, as well as acting like children about it.”

…Or we can only assume that’s what they wanted to say. Rather, they instead much more wisely stated,

“We regret we did not provide these customers with complete information, and we sincerely apologize for any hardship that these miscommunications have caused… We should have done a better job in these areas, and we’re committed to doing a better job in the future.”

But what about this “beef flavoring”? Does it actually even contain beef at all?

Well, it depends on how you define “beef.” The “natural flavouring” used in McDonald’s fries is made by hydrolyzing beef proteins into their constituent amino acids and adding various sugars and citric acid, producing a rich, meaty umami flavour. Whether or not this actually counts as beef is thus a matter of semantic and religious interpretation.

Such ambiguity is common in the field of food science. For example, the molecule which gives bananas their distinctive flavour is called Isoamyl Acetate. According to FDA rules, if this molecule is extracted from actual bananas, then food manufacturers are allowed to refer to it as “natural flavouring.” If, however, it is synthesized from other chemicals, it must be labeled as “artificial flavouring” – even though in both cases the molecule is quite literally exactly the same.

Thus, some still consider McDonald’s fries vegetarian. However, as alluded to, one thing they are definitely not is vegan, owing to the hydrolyzed milk- thereby denying vegans not only the deliciousness of this product, but also the ability, in this case, to take part in their favorite pastime- plant murder.

The debacle over beef in fries would not be the last time McDonald’s faced the wrath of Indian Hindus. In August 2019, McDonald’s India announced on Twitter that all its restaurants were now certified Halal, the code of animal slaughter and food preparation followed by devout Muslims. Once again a violent protest erupted, with protestors inflicting more than $60,000 in damage against McDonald’s property. Activists complained that the move alienated the country’s Hindu majority, and that McDonald’s should also offer meat prepared according to jahtka, a Hindu slaughtering method that involves beheading an animal in one stroke. As Vishnu Gupta, president of the Hindu Sena party, stated:

“McDonald’s can’t force halal meat upon a vast section of Hindus who eat jhatka. Their sensitivities can’t be ignored. If McDonald’s can keep in consideration the sensitivities of a particular group, why is it ignoring the others? If Mcdonald’s doesn’t change its policy, and start serving both halal and jhatka in its outlets across India, soon our men will protest against the food chain on streets.”

However, according critics like activist Shabham Hashmi, these protests had less to do with McDonald’s itself and more with islamophobia and Hindu Nationalism, with the restaurant chain serving, as ever, as a lightning rod and convenient scapegoat for pre-existing tensions:

“It is an absolutely Islamophobic atmosphere which is existing in India now and each and every occasion is used by right-wing Hindus to attack Muslims. It’s the extreme right asserting themselves to convert India into a Hindu nation.”

But such controversies are part and parcel of being a giant multinational corporation, and McDonald’s, as seemingly ever, continues to weather the various storms and serve burgers, shakes and its delicious potato sticks to its billions of customers around the globe, many of whom often mock the chain as equivalent to the lowest of low of food options, and yet, for some reason keep eating there anyway. And by “for some reason”, we all know it’s because of the french fries.

Bonus Fact:

Going back to the murder part of the beef, while rioting and vandalizing restaurants over beef flavouring in fries may seem like an extreme reaction, fears of beef contamination once triggered a nationwide uprising in India. From the mid 1700s onward the British East India Company and later the British Colonial Government recruited large numbers of native Indian troops known as sepoys to police their colonial holdings. Over the next century, resentment to British colonial rule steadily grew among the Indian population, fueled by punitive taxes, unfair economic policies, and a massive number of other abuses because the past was the worst. This simmering tension finally came to a boil in May 1857, triggered by, of all things, the issuing of a new pattern of rifle to the sepoys. Like previous smoothbore muskets, the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle was loaded from the muzzle using a paper cartridge, consisting of a bullet and gunpowder charge wrapped in a paper cylinder. To load the rifle, a soldier tore the cartridge open with his teeth, poured the powder down the barrel, crumpled the paper around the bullet, and rammed both down the barrel with a ramrod. Unfortunately, to help it slide down the barrel, the bullet for the 1853 Enfield was greased with a mixture of beef and pork tallow, meaning that soldiers risked ingesting this grease every time they loaded the rifle. This was abhorrent to Hindu and Muslim troops alike, and proved the last straw for the disgruntled sepoys. On March 29, 1857, sepoys at Barrackpore near Calcutta rose up against their British officers, sparking a rebellion that quickly spread across the subcontinent. What followed was a brutal year-and-a-half-long conflict that resulted in the deaths of 6000 British and an astounding 800,000 Indian troops and civilians, the dissolution of the East India Company, and the consolidation of British colonial rule in India. British reprisals against the rebellious sepoys was infamously brutal, with thousands being hanged or even strapped to the mouths of cannons and blown apart. While generally referred to in the West as the Sepoy Mutiny, Indian Mutiny, or Indian Rebellion, the events of 1857-1858 are known in India as the First War of Independence, and proved a watershed moment in British-Indian relations, and the first in a long line of rebellious acts that eventually resulted in India winning her independence less than a century later.

Moving on to a much lighter Bonus Fact- A little known fact about Bill Gates is he owns nearly 300,000 acres of farmland across the United States, no doubt putting mind controlling microchips in the foods he produces here so we all continue to use Windows on our PC’s. When he’s not doing that, he’s selling massive amounts of potatoes to McDonald’s to help them meet the demand for their fries. Another fun Bill Gates / McDonald’s fact is that, according to Warren Buffett, his good friend Mr. Gates holds the coveted McDonald’s gold card, entitling him to free food forever from the fast-food chain… Because if it’s one thing Bill Gates needs in order to keep on keeping on, it’s a discount on his food.

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered why there is often a second capital letter in surnames starting with “Mac” or “Mc”, this is because “Mac” and “Mc” are prefixes that mean “son of”. Early inconsistencies in records are what led to having both Mc and Mac prefixes. Mc is just an abbreviation of Mac, and both can actually be abbreviated further to the much less common M’. So someone with the last name of MacDonald is sort of like someone with the last name of Johnson—likely, each had ancestors with the name of Donald or John respectively. From this, you can probably see why Mc and Mac names typically contain a second capital letter. Since proper nouns are capitalized, you would write “son of Donald,” not “son of donald.” In the same way, you would usually write MacDonald rather than Macdonald, but there are obviously exceptions. Surnames have been around so long that sometimes they get changed, and in some families, the second capital letter was gotten rid of. There was also a prefix for “daughter of” but these mostly fell out of favour. The daughter prefix was Nc, short for the Gaelic “nighean mhic.” Surnames for women like NcDonald were fairly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, but after that time there were only a few secluded mentions of them. To a lesser extent, “Vc” was used to denote “grandson of,” so that a person would have two surnames, like John MacDonald Vcmaster for John being the son of Donald who in turn was the son of a master of some sort, but this tradition was never incredibly popular and is not as prevalent today.

Expand for References




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The Surprisingly Bitter and Occasionally Deadly Fight Over McDonalds’ Fries

Who is McDonald in McDonald’s Restaurant


The History of French Fries



Simplot’s french fry deal with McDonald’s was key for company, Idaho









Simplot and His Frozen French Fries Empire


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One comment

  • Interestingly, in Iceland they still use a suffix to indicate daughters. Thus, if someone named Donald had a son and a daughter, the former’s surname would be Donaldson, and the latter Donalddottir.

    I discovered this when watching a soccer game involving the Icelandic national team where all but one of the players had a last name ending in “dottir”.

    Kind of cool!