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What’s in This?: McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish

All 45+ ingredients in this chum square, explained (yep, even diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides)

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on, or near) themselves.

This edition: McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, which is made from more than 45 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down as they appear on the McDonald’s website.

The Fish Filet Patty

1) Pollock: One of the most fished fish in the world, McDonald’s pollock is sourced from the Bering Sea and surprisingly carries a “sustainable” label from the Marine Stewardship Council. It’s a good source of lean protein and it’s low in saturated fat, which can be bad for your heart in high amounts.

2) Water: Where fish live.

3) Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil): Consumed in large amounts, vegetable oil can cause all sorts of problems, including fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines, and hydrogenated oil is even worse. When you add hydrogen to food via hydrogenation, which many manufactures do to increase its shelf life, you get trans fats. Unfortunately, trans fats raise cholesterol, harden arteries and inhibit the formation of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, which otherwise helps determine the dilation of your arteries and regulates blood flow. So watch out for too much of these ingredients.

4) Wheat Flour: A powder made from the grinding of wheat. It’s used as part of the breading on this cubed pollock.

5) Modified Food Starch: Modified food starch is extracted from the source (usually corn, potatoes and/or tapioca), then treated physically, enzymatically or chemically to partially break down the starch. It’s likely used as an anti-caking agent, preventing the various flours in this breading from clumping.

6) Yellow Corn Flour: More flour for breading, but made from corn this time.

7) Bleached Wheat Flour: The problem with bleached flour is that the bleaching process produces an unfortunate byproduct: A chemical called alloxan, which has been found to induce diabetes in lab-animal test subjects by destroying their pancreas.

8) Salt: One Filet-O-Fish contains 580 milligrams of salt, or 25 percent of your daily recommended intake. Pair that with a medium order of fries, and you’re already at 36 percent of your daily salt allowance.

9) Whey (Milk): Whey is essentially the liquid leftovers after milk has been curdled and strained. The whey proteins help the batter adhere to the pollock.

10) Dextrose: Dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like corn, and it promotes browning in baked (or fried) goods. Fun fact: Dextrose has a high glycemic index, meaning it quickly raises blood sugar levels, so it’s used in IV solutions to treat low blood sugar and dehydration. People with diabetes might also consume dextrose tablets to raise their blood sugar if they become dangerously low. Because of this blood-sugar-boosting effect, consuming dextrose also provides an almost immediate jolt of energy — followed by an inevitable crash (and probably a necessary post-McDonald’s snooze).

11) Dried Yeast: Yeast is the fungus that makes dough rise. It helps to make the batter on this fish extra light.

12) Sugar: Sugar provides additional browning when the batter is fried.

13) Cellulose Gum: Cellulose gum is a common thickening agent, and consuming large amounts of it may add bulk to your stool and have a laxative effect, according to the FDA.

14) Paprika and Turmeric Extract (Color): Both of these contribute to the appearance of a golden-brown crust.

15) Natural Flavors: It’s hard to say what exactly this natural flavor is, but more generally, natural flavors are flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., pollock flavoring taken from a real pollock.

The Regular Bun

1) Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid): It may sound nice, but enriched flour contains more calories than whole wheat flour. Plus, it sometimes goes through that nasty bleaching process I mentioned above.

2) Water: Water and flour make dough.

3) Sugar: All told, one Filet-O-Fish contains 5 grams of sugar, one gram more than a sugar cube.

4) Yeast: Again, yeast helps dough rise.

5) Soybean Oil: I already went over this one.

6) Salt: More flavor.

7) Wheat Gluten: Those with celiac disease beware: Wheat gluten is wheat flour that’s been hydrated to activate the gluten, then processed to remove everything but the gluten. It’s added to improve the chewiness of the dough.

8) Potato Flour: Because potato flour attracts and holds water, it produces a moist bread.

9) May Contain One or More Dough Conditioners (DATEM, Ascorbic Acid, Mono and Diglycerides, Enzymes): Going one by one, DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides) strengthens dough and has been found to cause heart problems in lab animals. Ascorbic acid is just another name for vitamin C, which accelerates the rising of the dough and prolongs its shelf life.

Mono and diglycerides, meanwhile, improve dough’s gas retention — or fluffiness — but may be packed with trans fats that aren’t listed on the nutrition facts label. Because trans fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, consuming more than you think you are (because they weren’t listed on the label) could do serious damage to your body.

Enzymes, lastly, are just natural dough conditioners and not really worth worrying about.

10) Vinegar: A dash of vinegar can create a stronger dough.

The Tartar Sauce

1) Soybean Oil: More oil.

2) Pickle Relish (Diced Pickles, Vinegar, Salt, Capers, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Calcium Chloride, Spice Extractives, Polysorbate 80): You should already know a few of these, but xanthan gum is a relatively harmless thickening agent. That said, those with bowel issues should be wary when consuming it, as a study found it to be a highly efficient laxative.

The widely-used preservative potassium sorbate damages DNA when exposed to human blood cells, according to a 2010 study, but more research is needed.

Calcium chloride, meanwhile, helps pickles taste salty without actually adding even more salt, and it’s safe for consumption, according to the FDA

Spice Extractives are exactly what they sound like: Concentrated spices.

Finally, polysorbate 80, which gives sauces their saucy texture, promotes inflammatory bowel disease and a cluster of obesity-related diseases known as metabolic syndrome, according to a 2015 study.

So, not a lot of great stuff here.

3) Egg Yolks: These lend a rich flavor.

4) Water: It falls from the sky when it rains.

5) Onions: You know this one.

6) Distilled Vinegar: Vinegar produced from the fermentation of distilled alcohol. It gives the sauce more of a punch.

7) Sugar: For a balanced sweetness.

8) Spice: As we learned in our exploration of the ingredients in nacho-flavored Doritos, the FDA doesn’t require food labelers to list each spice by their specific name (as a means of protecting their recipes) so long as it follows their definition of the word “spice”: “The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken, or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.”

9) Salt: You saw it coming.

10) Xanthan Gum: See above.

11) Potassium Sorbate (Preservative): See above.

12) Parsley: This serves mostly as a slightly herbaceous and bitter contrast to the creamer, richer flavors in tartar sauce.

The Pasteurized Process American Cheese Half Slice

1) Milk: Milk makes cheese.

2) Cream: Cream is basically the fat-filled layer skimmed from the top of milk before homogenization.

3) Water: It’s good for drinking, too.

4) Sodium Citrate: Sodium citrate is a type of salt that makes processed cheese more melty.

5) Salt: It’s everywhere.

6) Cheese Cultures: A cheese culture is a natural strain of bacteria used to make cheese by helping the fermentation process.

7) Citric Acid: Derived from citrus, citric acid acts as a mild preservative.

8) Enzymes: Enzymes are responsible for coagulation, helping the cheese go from milk to curd.

9) Soy Lecithin: Soy lecithin is added as an emulsifier to give the cheese its texture.

10) Color Added: While certain artificial colors are known to be carcinogenic,  physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, assures us that a normal person’s liver should have no problem breaking down whatever minuscule amounts of coloring we consume with our food.

The Takeaway

I must say, McDonald’s does a great job of manufacturing their food to taste, look and feel good. But it comes at a cost, and that cost shows up in the form of potentially dangerous preservatives, unnecessary dough conditioners, excess fats and too much salt.

I’ll take a water cup instead.