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Salon science writer mystified by non-decomposing McDonald's hamburger debunked by another Salon writer

Salon assistant editor Joanna Rothkopf, who focuses on science, health and society for the magazine, has a new piece up regarding a Detroit chiropractic clinic’s experiment that shows a McDonald’s hamburger refusing to decompose after two years:


She then goes on to cite chemical preservatives as to why this happens:

In an interview with a local CBS affiliate, Wayne State University Assistant Professor of Food Science Yafan Zhang says the food’s longevity is due to a preservative called calcium probinate. “These ingredients, they have potential to cause some inflammation in our stomachs … unless you eat a lot of this type of food everyday, then you will be okay.”

But that’s not why and this is a stunt that’s been explained time and time again. And time and time again it’s been found that the burger doesn’t rot because of its size and low moisture content. Some examples:

Serious Eats – 2010, The Burger Lab: Revisiting the Myth of The 12-Year Old McDonald’s Burger That Just Won’t Rot (Testing Results!):

Well, well, well. Turns out that not only did the regular McDonald’s burgers not rot, but the home-ground burgers did not rot either. Samples one through five had shrunk a bit (especially the beef patties), but they showed no signs of decomposition. What does this mean?

It means that there’s nothing that strange about a McDonald’s burger not rotting. Any burger of the same shape will act the same way.



…the burger doesn’t rot because it’s small size and relatively large surface area help it to lose moisture very fast. Without moisture, there’s no mold or bacterial growth. Of course, that the meat is pretty much sterile to begin with due to the high cooking temperature helps things along as well. It’s not really surprising. Humans have known about this phenomenon for thousands of years. After all, how do you think beef jerky is made?

Business Insider – 2013, The Real Reason Why McDonald’s Burgers Don’t Rot:

Food blog A Hamburger Today also did some rigorous experiments which confirm that the phenomenon of undecayed burgers isn’t unique to McDonald’s. From AHT:

“Turns out that not only did the regular McDonald’s burgers not rot, but the home-ground burgers did not rot either. Samples one through five had shrunk a bit (especially the beef patties), but they showed no signs of decomposition.”

Or Ms. Rothkopf could have checked a source a little closer to her office…

Salon – 2010, The secret to the immortality of McDonald’s food:

The beef patty is also high in fat — varying between 37 and 54 percent of the total caloric content — and has been cooked at a high temperature. “It’s also very thin, which once again means high heat per surface area,” says Sean O’Keefe, a professor of food science at Virginia Tech. Davies noted that over time, her patty just shrank and hardened, losing whatever moisture it once contained.

A regular McDonald’s sesame-seed bun contains calcium propionate and sodium propionate — both preservatives. But the list of ingredients — down to the preservatives — is actually no different from what you’d find on the packaging of your average loaf of supermarket white bread. Wonder Light Enriched Buns, for example, are also loaded with calcium propionate. While neither list mentions quantities, it’s reasonable to assume that both are under the FDA-approved limit.

Ultimately, says O’Keefe, the McDonald’s haters have gotten their science wrong. “The ingredients are similar to anything you’d see in processed fast food,” he says. 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.


Over to you Salon. Which writer should we believe?


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