Recently, The Dr. Oz Show aired an episode that addressed the "Secrets of the Fast Food Industry." We had some questions about the episode, so we reached out to Dr. Sean O'Keefe, a food science professor at Virginia Tech. Dr. O'Keefe originally helped us answer questions on Why Doesn't Fast Food Spoil? Below, Dr. O'Keefe has much to say about the episode and its inaccuracies.
Dr. Sean O'Keefe
Response to Dr. Oz's "Secrets of the Fast Food Industry" segment
By Dr. Sean O'Keefe
First, an introduction: I am a Food Scientist. I have a Masters in Food Science and Technology and a Ph.D. in Food Technology. I have been working as an academic in Universities for 24 years. I have conducted paid research for the food industry, but I am no mouthpiece for them.
I grew up in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, a small town (~5,000 at that time) in a house where my mom was a homemaker until we were all off to school. Growing up, the only fast food restaurant in Antigonish was KFC. We ate at McDonald’s twice a year when we visited Halifax for our dental exams. We only ate KFC once a year, and that was when they had BOGO coupons. So growing up, I ate at fast food restaurants three times per year. In my opinion, this is the right number of times per year to eat fast food.
I don't eat fast food often because I don't like it. It has too much fat, too much salt, too much sugar and is unappetizing to me. I would MUCH rather eat a peanut butter sandwich than fast food. The only fast food restaurant I regularly eat at is Subway, and only if my kids are hungry and want to eat something when we're on the road. I have eaten at other fast food restaurants, but I honestly don't remember my last visit.
I'm not a huge fan of fast food restaurants, and I am no apologist for the fast food industry, but I have to correct some errors in Dr. Oz's recent segment that focused on the secrets being hidden in fast food.
First of all, the people interviewed were not fast food insiders. Not one of them works in the fast food industry. One is a chef - somebody competing with fast food. The second has a book saying the food industry is selling unhealthy food - by scaring people, she could increase book sales. The third, a public health commissioner, was the only one of the three who is competent to make comments on the fast food industry; but again, he was not an insider. "Insider" sounds compelling, but to be an insider, you’d have to actually work inside the fast food industry.
A study was discussed which examines the “link” between fast food and asthma; this was an epidemiological study. Epidemiological studies do NOT determine cause-and-effect. They can only determine whether something should be studied further. For example, epidemiological studies show that electric razor use is associated with heart disease, because countries with higher use of electric razors have higher incidence of heart disease. True, but upon further investigation, there is no cause-and-effect relationship between an electric razor and heart disease – other factors are at play. This is an example of the questionable results that epidemiological work may uncover.
This epidemiological study has been portrayed in the media as showing conclusive evidence of a link between fast food and asthma. The connection cannot be determined based on this epidemiological study alone. But I would argue that people would be healthier eating more fruit and less fast food, irrespective of any link to asthma.
Let’s review the “seven secrets” that were covered on the show.
1. The soda fountain is the dirtiest place in the fast food restaurant.
I believe this is true. We have known for a long time that ice can be a source of pathogenic bacteria. The soda fountain with sugar and air makes a very inviting place for mold and bacteria.
I don't drink soda and don't let my kids drink soda except for a special treat. In my opinion, sugared soda defines "empty calories." In my opinion, you shouldn’t drink soda, not even diet soda; you should drink bottled water instead. Sure, you're paying for something that comes out of your tap almost free, but that is better than drinking colored sugar water.
2. There are antifreeze chemicals in our food.
It is mentioned that "propylene glycol” is a chemical found in our food.
“Chemical” is a scary-sounding word, but what we need to step back and think about is the fact that everything we see, smell and touch contains chemicals. This includes our bodies.
Calling propylene glycol “antifreeze” is sensationalist and designed to scare people. Automotive antifreeze has traditionally been ethylene glycol, which is quite toxic to people and animals, and is why you should never leave car antifreeze where your pets may access it. Propylene glycol is not the same as ethylene glycol. Propylene glycol is sometimes labeled “non-toxic antifreeze” and is used where ethylene glycol would be a problem because of its toxicity. Propylene glycol is classified by the FDA as GRAS, generally regarded as safe. Other GRAS list ingredients include krill oil, which was advertised on The Dr. Oz show online. Since propylene glycol is a GRAS compound, it is safe to use in foods.
It was stated that we don’t know what the long-term effects (of eating propylene glycol in your food) might be. You could say the same thing about anything in our diet. How about soy products? Krill oil? Broccoli? Have any of these been studied in humans for long-term safety? Well...no. The best evidence available says that propylene glycol is safe.
I do agree that long-term safety is a question we need to look at when discussing food additives, but we also need to look at natural products as well. Comfrey tea, a favorite of natural food lovers, causes liver toxicity...100 percent naturally. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is very toxic to the liver and is the main cause of acute liver failure in this country. Most people have it in their house and don't think twice about using it. I hope the “insider” concerned about propylene glycol avoids acetaminophen like the plague, as it is much more dangerous than propylene glycol.
I found the comments about "cutting corners" to be quite funny. Chef Wilde said the fast food industry "wants to make money." My response is that, OF COURSE that is the case. Certainly she, as a chef, wants to make money, right? No one is in business to lose money.
Fast food milkshakes were mentioned as being harmful, and it was said that old-fashioned milkshakes at home are a better choice. I agree that simpler is better. But, there are reasons why today’s milkshakes (and other foods) contain additives. Many of the ingredients discussed are for thickening, while some are for safety (mold prevention) and others are for stability, so the milk shake will be properly blended. Comparing a milkshake made at home and one made in restaurants that serve thousands of meals daily is silly.
Should there be labels on all fast food containers? Yes – I absolutely think there should be. Should companies strive for "clean labels" that contain whole products like milk, cream, sugar and vanilla? Absolutely. But please, let us keep these sensationalistic scare tactics out of the cup.
3. Grill marks are often fake.
I laughed out loud at this one. Consider this: Chefs in fancy, Michelin-starred restaurants may use propane torches to put the finishing touches on crème brûlée and other foods because it is easier than using a broiler and allows them to finish the dish in a way that meets their visual approval and high culinary standards.
While some restaurants actually grill their burgers, others may mark the patties with grill marks. About that, Dr. Oz asked, “Is it paint?” No! If it’s anything other than a grill making the mark, it is probably the same natural coloring used in soda to make cola dark. One of the guests said, "It can be toxic dyes..." Let’s be honest: at a high enough dose, anything can be toxic – including water. Everything used by the food industry has been tested and approved for use in foods.
4. Chicken is not as healthy because it is doused in butter and margarine.
I haven’t conducted a study on those who eat fast food, but my guess is that people are not choosing fast food restaurants because of their extensive selection of healthy foods. As a part of a healthy diet, fast food is not bad for you. If you’re eating it once or more per day, that’s probably not healthy. But let’s take that one step further. If you’re eating out ANYWHERE – fast food restaurants, sit-down quick-service restaurants or a fine dining restaurant – once a day, it’s also probably not healthy, as the vast majority of restaurants are ultimately concerned with serving good-tasting food, and they won’t sacrifice taste for healthfulness.
They specifically mentioned that "60 percent of the previous fast food workers surveyed said they slathered fat... butter... on their chicken." They estimated that the calories in that added fat (about 70 calories each time) could mean up to seven pounds gained annually. So, what is the solution?
Don't eat empty calories. Don't eat fast food so often. But let it be clear: my argument against eating fast food is not because of the extra butter, mold or the chemical additives Dr. Oz’s guests discussed. Let’s not tarnish the “fast food industry” because of these things; my argument is that there are healthier alternatives to fast food.
My advice: pack a lunch with foods bought fresh and prepared at home. Not only does this save money, it also controls your diet. If you want fast food once in a while, that’s fine if the rest of your diet is healthy.
5. French fries and milk shakes have 'beef additives.'
Many years ago an Indian friend who is a strict vegetarian invited me to supper. We had dahl, among other things, and for dessert, she had Jell-O.
I looked at her:
"Shantha, I thought you were vegetarian,"
"Don’t you know where Jell-O comes from?"
She was shocked when I told her it was from beef collagen. Apparently in India, Jell-O is non-beef.
I think we’d be better off if fast food restaurants posted all ingredients on the boxes in which food is served. Perhaps we’d make better choices if that were the case.
For fries specifically, tallow improves the flavor tremendously. I am old enough to remember when the change from frying in tallow to frying in partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils took place. Consumers were not happy with the flavor although they believed that the new frying fat was healthier. I think ALL restaurants should disclose whether they are using animal-based ingredients in their products. “Beef in milk shakes” was mentioned, and I assume Dr. Oz's guest is referring to gelatin. It is found in yogurt and many other places, but is noted on their labels.
The use of beef extract to flavor French fries is done to make consumers happy – the flavor is better with the beef flavorings. The fast food industry is not adding the flavoring to cut corners; it is adding it to improve the flavor, as determined by consumer product testing.
6. Fastest food is not the freshest food: seven day-old French fries
The chef stated, "Those are fries that are engineered for longevity." This is ridiculous. Does she believe that McDonald’s expects consumers to eat their fries after a week?
Full disclosure: my wife loves McDonald's. She says the fries are "the best ever." She also says they are terrible after they get cold. Engineered for longevity? I don’t think so.
Let’s break down the science of why fast food French fries retain their appearance for days on end: the fries are high salt and low moisture.
10,000 years ago people knew low moisture and high salt kept food from going bad. That is why the fries do not get moldy. It is very simple science.
Heat lamps were also discussed. Sure, they warm the fries, which further reduces water and reduces the chance of mold. I would be shocked if fries are held "for hours" under the heat lamp before they are sold to customers. At that point, they would be dried up sticks and inedible.
Let’s remember that heat lamps are used in restaurants of all types – not exclusively in fast food restaurants. Most importantly, the heat lamps are used for our safety. Besides keeping food warm so it tastes good, the lamps retain heat so that foods don’t drop into cooler “danger zone” temperatures where bacteria may grow.
7. Best time to order
A claim was made that fast food restaurants "coat the place with industrial strength chemicals" at the end of the day.
It’s an interesting point, but I know of no evidence that this is actually true. Carryover of sanitizing agents may occur, but normally at levels so low that they are difficult or impossible to measure. The fact that the restaurants have aggressive sanitation procedures to keep food safe is now being turned 180 degrees to be something that is a problem. I would challenge Dr. Oz to show one study where fast food cooked first thing in the morning absorbs sanitizers at levels that are unsafe. I can smell chlorine in my tap water, but the level is regulated and the level is safe – despite the fact that I can smell it. I would rather have a slight chlorine smell than unsafe water.
Dr. Oz seemed to be serious about wanting a discussion about fast food products. I just wish he would have picked a group of food experts who could address the myths the chef and author were perpetuating.
Fast food can be part of a healthy diet, but eating fast food every day is not part of a healthy diet. At the end of the day, I think Americans need to make better food choices.
How often do you eat fast food?