Documenting the everlasting quality of fast-food items from McDonald’s isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. But the latest example in the genre wins for its longevity: David Whipple has held on to a burger since 1999, and it doesn’t look much different from the day it was served up on a tray.
The burger was a guest on the CBS talk show The Doctors last week; Whipple, who is apparently fine with his 14-year-old leaving the nest unchaperoned, spoke about the specimen via telephone. He originally bought it with the intent of “showing some people how enzymes work,” and it ended up in the pocket of a coat shoved into a closet. “My wife didn’t discover it for a at least a year or two after that.”
Dr. Jim Sears, the show’s resident pediatrician, wonders, “If the mold won’t eat it, the fugus won’t eat, the bugs won’t eat it, maybe we shouldn’t be eating it?” And Whipple seems to implicate preservatives too, saying, “I think it’s a good object lesson. It’s great for my grandkids to see, to see what happens with fast food.”
But are preservatives really to blame? McDonald’s claims that its patties only contain beef and seasoning, and while the hamburger buns do have calcium propionate on the ingredient list, that preservative is present in many processed breads.
According to McDonald’s, a lack of moisture is responsible for this and other mummified food items. Toasting the bread and steaming the beef in the cooking process removes water. Furthermore, according to the Your Questions section of the McDonald’s Canada website, “When left out open in the room, there is further water loss as the humidity within most buildings is around 40%. So in the absence of moisture or high humidity, the hamburger simply dries out, rather than rot.”
But as Salon reported in 2010, when the Internet was obsessed with tracking the lack of change exhibited by the burger and fries Sally Davies photographed daily for her Happy Meal Project, there may be another factor at play: fat content.
“Anything that is high in fat will be low in moisture,” says Barry Swanson, a professor at the Washington State University department of food science. And low moisture means less room for mold to grow.
So Whipple and the talking heads from The Doctors may be right to fear the good looks of that 14-year-old burger, but not because it’s laced with preservatives. It’s the same reason to be wary of a just-cooked Big Mac: It’s an unhealthy, fat-laden meal.