If you were going to pick up a meal for your kid at the drive-thru, what variety of fried protein would you rather have them eat? Breaded chicken made with meat from factory-farmed birds that are augmented with various fillers and extenders? Or crisp bites of MSC-certified sustainable wild-caught Alaskan pollack?
The latter, McDonald’s new Fish McBites, the first new addition to its Happy Meal menu in a decade, would appear to be the better choice—in terms of health and the environment. But the devil is in the details when it comes to the fast-food world, where a dish that could be made at home with just a handful of ingredients is composed of more than 30 (see: McNuggets). Picking fish over chicken may fulfill the broader tradition of abstaining from meat for Lent (like the Filet-o-Fish, fish McBites will be available at the chain through March), but if you aren’t basing your order on Catholic ritual, you might want to think twice.
McDonald’s makes the ingredients and nutritional values of all of its menu items freely available on its website. According to the company’s own nutritional analysis, McBites are somewhat more healthy than McNuggets. There are 20 grams of fat in a 5.2-ounce serving of fish, and 30 grams in 5.7 ounces of chicken. The same order of McBites has 370 calories, while the McNuggets clock in at 470.
What the two items have in common is McDonald’s industrialized frying oil, a blend of canola, corn, soybean and hydrogenated soybean oils that’s spiked with TBHQ and dimethylpolysiloxane. Are those last two ingredients not ringing any bells? The former, a preservative, may be deemed safe to consume in small amounts by both the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority, but studies by the International Programme on Chemical Safety have shown higher doses to cause stomach tumors in lab animals. And dimethylpolysiloxane? You’re probably more familiar with that particular silicone thanks to its use in Silly Putty; it gives the toy its particular stretchy, pliable texture.
At McDonald’s, it’s added to the oil to keep it from foaming.