Things You Should Know Before Your Next Trip To McDonald's

Perhaps no piece of restaurant iconography is more recognizable than McDonald's famous Golden Arches. They stand as a symbol of consistency, reliability, and affordability that no other restaurant has been able to achieve. The burger chain's immense popularity has allowed it to grow from a single location in California in 1940 to a massive enterprise. Today, McDonald's has tens of thousands of locations and can be found in all 50 U.S. states. as well as 120 countries around the globe.

However, despite enjoying virtually universal appeal and having decades of experience perfecting its craft, the burger chain is not without its shady faults. Even as the restaurant continues to serve millions daily, the menu is hiding much more than it discloses. We investigated McDonald's to uncover everything you should know before eating there again. From hidden ingredients to shocking nutrition facts, the shadowy truth behind McDonald's menu may make the Golden Arches look more like the yellow plastic they truly are.

The menu has gotten smaller since 2022

While the 2010s saw the emergence of healthy choices and diverse menu options for McDonald's, the 2020s have seen that mentality stripped back dramatically. In 2022, McDonald's quietly removed several menu items from all its U.S. locations, including salads, parfaits, grilled chicken sandwiches, and the Egg White Delight McMuffin. All of these items were marketed as healthier alternatives to the world-famous burger and fries.

The change came after reported dwindling demand. As McDonald's USA stated: "We're always listening to what our fans are craving and evolving our menu to provide them choices that meet their needs." The statement went on to say that the change was to simplify operations while also improving customer experience. According to BTIG analyst Peter Saleh's interview with Bloomberg (via Quartz), improved customer experience boiled down to one main variable: order times. "For many of these restaurants," Saleh elaborated, "their menus get bloated with some of these new items, and then you cut it off to help with speed." Restaurant Dive reported a similar insight, finding that McDonald's had cut down its order time by 30 seconds between 2019 and 2020. American fans of the recently cut menu items may be surprised that their neighbors across the pond in the U.K. still enjoy a wide selection of wraps, salads, and vegan options, and other countries have access to McFlurry flavors that make U.S. options pale by comparison.

Happy Meal nutrition facts are calculated for adults

McDonald's was an unrivaled haven for 1990s kids and continues to be an exciting destination for kids today. However, McDonald's iconic Happy Meal is not as catered to the young demographic as one might think. While the Golden Arches have depended on and attracted children for years, the nutritional values it provides to parents are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. In other words, they're standardized for adults eating up to twice as much as a child would. The American Heart Association has published general guidelines for caloric intake across different ages. Children don't need the full 2,000-calorie diet until age 14, which is usually well after the appeal of the Happy Meal has diminished.

So while McDonald's does publish its nutritional facts for Happy Meals, it gives no disclaimer to parents that the percent daily values are calibrated for adult dietary needs. So while the reported fat content of a classic Happy Meal is only 2q% of the daily recommended intake for adults, that number could be much higher for a small child.

The fountain drink syrup ratio counts the ice as water

McDonald's has cultivated a reputation for having some of the best-tasting Coke and Sprite in the fast food industry. You'd think that an industrial product like soda would taste the same no matter where it was from, but McDonald's fountain drinks are undeniably different. While this has bolstered the restaurant's reputation of quality — with both specialized water filtration methods and stainless-steel storage of syrups credited for the remarkable taste — there may be a shadier factor.

McDonald's mixes the syrup and water in a way that accounts for melting ice, meaning there is a greater concentration of syrup in its beverages than the ones from other fast-food chains or the bottled product. This means that if you drink your beverage quickly, or opt for no ice at all, your body will receive a more concentrated sugar jolt from a McDonald's soda than it would from drinking the beverage elsewhere.

McDonald's french fries aren't vegan and contain things you can't even pronounce

French fries might seem like a simple dish, but the ones from McDonald's have a lot more in store for the consumer than they may expect. The restaurant chain offers an interactive menu online to review the nutritional facts and ingredients of every dish. The contents of the fries are surprising, to say the least.

While consumers may assume that McDonald's french fries are made from a simple combination of potatoes, salt, and vegetable oil, the interactive menu reveals that the fries are unfit to eat for vegans, people with wheat sensitivities, and even diners hoping for a straightforward, relatively unprocessed snack. The site lists an amalgamation of up to four different oils and a laundry list of unpronounceable ingredients, including dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and hydrolyzed wheat. The trouble for vegans comes from the fries' unique flavor profile. In addition to the salt and oil, McDonald's fries are lathered in natural beef flavor, which contains milk derivatives.

The McRib does not have any rib meat

The idea of a sandwich stuffed with barbecued rib meat sounds very appealing, but sadly, the McRib does not live up to its name. While it would be far from reasonable to expect any restaurant, let alone a massive fast food chain, to put a full rack of ribs between two buns, bones and all, McDonald's takes a very half-hearted approach to its supposedly rib-based sandwich.

First, the meat is just a patty shaped to resemble a stack of ribs. Second, the sandwich contains no rib meat. The actual ingredients of the McRib pork patty are pork, water, salt, dextrose, and rosemary extract.

While skeptical readers might argue that "pork" could very well include rib meat, the pork in the McRib patty actually comes from the shoulder. While it might be excessive to say that the McRib is a sandwich built on lies, it's definitely not all that it appears to be at first blush.

The coffee is still too hot

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, spilled McDonald's coffee in her lap resulting in full-thickness burns over 16% of her body. Her case against the cooperation made headlines and the company admitted to keeping its coffee between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit while similar establishments kept their coffee at much lower temperatures, between 135 and 140 degrees.

As the thermodynamic expert on Liebeck's case would explain, cooler temperatures — even 150 degrees — had a significantly lower risk of causing such burns. Liebeck won her trial and was awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, but the story does not end there. Eleven years later, customers are still dealing with traumatic burns from McDonald's coffee. In September 2023, as reported by the Washington Post, 85-year-old Mable Childress claimed to have received severe first- and second-degree burns after McDonald's coffee spilled down her stomach and onto her legs. Her lawyer, Dylan Hackett, said, "The hot coffee temperature has already been litigated before ... So it's an ongoing issue, it seems like, with McDonald's."

The chicken nuggets are held together by starch

Rumors about McDonald's McNuggets have run rampant across the internet, from false pink slime allegations to myths about finding chicken heads in McNugget boxes. It's easy for restaurant-goers at McDonald's to realize that the McNuggets are not made simply from chicken breasts. As with the McRib above, the meat in McNuggets is formed into a patty, and its full ingredients list online includes modified vegetable starch, which binds the ground meat together.

While this fact may be unappetizing in and of itself, it is made worse by the fact that it helps give credence to an urban legend about McNuggets. A user called Dfunkatron claimed on Reddit that, while allegedly working for the fast food chain, they accidentally left a bag of 100 McNuggets out of the fridge or freezer for too long to disastrous consequences. "They melted," Dfunkatron explained. "Into a pool of liquid. I never understood why. But they were completely indiscernible as being the nuggets I once knew." 

Unlimited soda may come with unlimited bacteria

The soda fountain is a staple in McDonald's restaurants. However, these convenient serving stations may be plaguing McDonald's customers with unwanted microscopic hitchhikers. A study performed by Loma Linda University throughout the Eastern Coachella Valley of California found some concerning information about self-serve drink dispensers, like those used at McDonald's (via Water Supply). When swabbed, 42% of the sampled fountain drink dispensers came back positive for coliform bacteria. The study also confirmed the presence of other bacteria, including salmonella, E. coli, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

These machines make the perfect environment for bacteria in part due to their plastic piping. This material provides a suitable environment for the accumulation of biofilms and other viscous substances. In addition to the materials used in the machine, the Loma Linda researchers found that many of the fountain drink dispensers had "adequate water temperatures for the formation and growth of biofilms, which can harbor pathogenic microorganisms and therefore pose threats to human health and public safety."

All nuggets are one of four shapes

If McDonald's is known for one thing, it's consistency. This precision, however, straddles the line between dependable and alarming, especially when it comes to Chicken McNuggets. While other restaurants may proudly note that no two servings of a dish are alike due to the variability of natural food production, this is not the case with Chicken McNuggets. This menu item has been planned and analyzed down to the very size and shape of each nugget.

Each Chicken McNugget is one of four precisely designed shapes: the boot, the bone, the bell, and the ball. As mentioned above, the McNuggets are not whole pieces of chicken breast but rather a blended and mixed chicken breast patty. These patties are deliberately formed into these specific shapes to give each nugget an identical cooking time.

While this ultraprecision does lead to identical results, it deprives the McNuggets of any chance of feeling homemade. Instead, reveals the menu item for what it is: a mechanical industrial product.

Some of the best menu items aren't even on the menu

Many consumers may be unaware that there's more at McDonald's than it advertises — or even puts on its menu. The restaurant chain has an entire secret menu of original sandwiches and desserts, some of which are arguably more delicious and unique than the best menu items that the chain regularly has to offer. 

Some of McDonald's coolest creations on the secret menu include the Land, Sea, and Air Burger, which takes surf and turf platters to a new level by combining the Big Mac, chicken sandwich, and Filet-o-Fish all in one. For consumers with a sweet tooth, the secret menu also offers the Apple Pie McFlurry and the Neapolitan Shake, which combines vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry into one delicious treat. The next time you find yourself at a McDonald's, be sure to take advantage of everything it has to offer, secret menu and all. 

One in 10 ice cream machines are currently broken

It's no secret that McDonald's has a bad reputation when it comes to its soft-serve ice cream machines. Several parody social accounts have gone viral over the years, including one posing as Elon Musk that claimed he would buy every McDonald's just to fix the machines. Even other restaurant chains have gotten in on the joke, especially Wendy's, whose X account has tweeted replies roasting McDonald's ice cream machines.

However, this goes beyond viral groupthink. The broken machines are a real, prevalent problem. In fact, a website called McBroken has taken it upon itself to track the functionality of the ice cream machines at every McDonald's location worldwide in real time. The results are staggering.

Over one in 10 McDonald's ice cream machines are currently out of use. The problem even caught the attention of the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which inquired into McDonald's ice cream machines to get to the root of the problem in 2021. Location owners pinned the problem on the overly complex machines that require a daily, four-hour cleaning cycle which is susceptible to failure. If it does, it takes calling a trained technician to get the machine back up and running.

Corn syrup is everywhere

We can't talk about the McDonald's menu without considering the ubiquitous, seemingly indiscriminate inclusion of corn syrup across the chain's menu items. Simply put, it's everywhere. We're not just talking about corn syrup in fountain drinks. That would be expected. The truth is, when going through the ingredients lists posted on the McDonald's website, consumers can find corn syrup or its sweeter derivative, high fructose corn syrup, wherever they look. It's the fourth ingredient in the ice cream in cones and McFlurries, a top-three ingredient in each of the flavored syrups used in shakes, and the first ingredient in the Hot Caramel Sundae's caramel topping.

Corn syrup has even made its way into the burgers, including the iconic Big Mac. Many of McDonald's hamburgers come with ketchup, which has high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup occupying the third and fourth slots in its ingredient list. The Big Mac uses high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup as components in the pickle relish of its signature sauce.

The cookies are dyed brown

Delicious, golden-brown cookies fresh out of the oven are synonymous with the comforts of home and hospitality. McDonald's, to its credit, seems to be dedicated to bringing that baked-with-love feeling to its customers, but it seems to have found a rather odd way to do it.

Rather than depend solely on a mix of brown sugar and butter to give each cookie its delectable, toasty-brown appearance, McDonald's adds caramel color to its recipe. While this may create an appetizing appearance, it falls short of delivering the comforts of home. Stanger still, the cookies are indeed made with brown sugar and butter — or margarine at any rate — which may make consumers question why the coloring is needed in the first place. Is the quality of ingredients so poor that the cookies simply wouldn't look right unless propped up with dye? Home cooks have no trouble whipping up a perfect batch of golden-brown cookies in their own homes without the use of supplemental additives to make them appealing, so it's a wonder McDonald's can't do the same.

A single Big Mac has almost half an entire day's worth of sodium

According to the nutritional facts posted on McDonald's interactive menu online, the iconic Big Mac contains 1,050 milligrams of salt. For context, that's a full gram of salt and more — that's more salt than in two and a half large orders of fries. 

This single burger contains 46% of the daily recommended value of sodium. Bear in mind that this value is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. If your body has lower caloric needs (for example, if you're a child who may have outgrown the Happy Meal or simply want to feel like a big kid and have a seat at the adult table), that level of sodium is going to be an even greater percentage of your daily requirements. If kids and preteens with smaller dietary needs opt for this burger, they'll have to be especially conscious of how much sodium they consume the rest of the day.