Can you trust your takeaway with your health?

Credit: iStock
Credit: iStock

We've all seen those memes of how McDonald's (McD) burgers and fries never go off. 

Or the adbusts drawing attention to how unhealthy their meals are.

So McD decided to be more transparent and give customers a little bit of a behind-the-scenes look at how they produce their food.

I spoke to their South African chief operations and supply chain officer, Jo-Ann de Wet. And this is what I saw BTS.

The kitchen is an organised chaos with patties flipped onto rolls to serve Big Macs and McChicken burgers.

Fries crash into dancing oil every few minutes. It's hard to keep up.

As I pass through, I'm shown how the machine automatically dispenses 4g of salt onto every batch of crisp fries every few minutes and they're all specially cut with a shape and size in mind by McCain Foods. 

Read more: Here are 5 health myths that simply need to die

But these are not the same chips that McCain would sell in stores  you won't get them as tiny as this there.

McD asks them to use a specific potato that they need to grow so that potato will allow them to get the length they require and will have the amount of solids they require, explains de Wet.

Back to the process. Any meal that is ordered is immediately displayed on a screen in the kitchen.

Everything is preset: the temperature of the oil, the time needed for a patty to fry and the timer on the fryer that is set to three minutes but just needs a quick shake by a staff member to avoid them sticking to one another.

Each batch of fries is fried for around three minutes in a fryer set at 168 degrees Celsius. There is limited intervention on the staff's part since most equipment is mechanically set. 

The patties use a minimum of 19% (to 23%) of fat to bind it, says de Wet. Interestingly, the patties are broiled instead of grilled. And, due to time constraints, they cannot be flipped. It’s like a toaster, explains de Wet, cooked in its own ice and fat.

McDonald's now also includes a nutritional fact sheet with every sit-down meal but if you aren't a nutrition expert it can be a bit hard to understand the effects of what you're consuming.

We chatted to registered dietitian, Safiyya Suleman and asked her to break down how healthy their most popular meal items – Big Mac, McChicken and french fries – really are.

"Fast foods such as McDonalds are energy-dense meals which are usually high in salt and saturated fat and refined carbohydrates.  They also use extremely processed meat.

"Looking at the Big Mac and McChicken, I can say that their salt content is high and should therefore be avoided, especially for those with hypertension.

"A high intake of salt with more than 600mg per 100g is unhealthy as it can increase your blood pressure and increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends no more than 5g of salt per day. This 5g includes the salt that you add to your food as well as salt already found in foods."  

What about the minimum of 19–23% fat to bind the patties?

Suleman explains that the fat content of the meals are extremely high and this can sometimes be felt by the griminess of the patty or meal, which is the perfect description for the patty I felt between my fingers in the kitchen.

"The type and amount of fat is always an important component to look at and since most of the fats from these meals compose of saturated fats in high amounts, it is considered unhealthy," adds Suleman.

"Diets high in saturated fats and trans-fats increases your bad cholesterol (LDL) and hence can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease."

So if you're a loyal McD lover, know that high energy-dense foods can also cause weight gain and obesity, particularly when large portion sizes are consumed regularly since it results in an overall increased energy intake.

And if you really had to make a choice between a Big Mac and the McChicken meal, Suleman suggests you opt for the latter due to its lower saturated fat and salt contents.

Ever wondered where the meal contents come from?

All their beef and chicken is locally produced, and the meat is cut from the shoulder, chuck, brisket, rib eye and loin. 

Their cheese is imported from New Zealand. They say they haven't found a local supplier to accommodate their level of requirement.

At the very back of the kitchen is another small staff kitchen where they can enjoy some quiet time during their lunch breaks. Their shifts range from four to eight hours and they don't take on casual labourers.

As an employee, if you're working the four-hour shift your meal for the day is a wrap burger, a small drink and small fries. You can also choose between chicken, beef and fish or salad.

If your shift extends to five hours and beyond, you're entitled to small fries, a box burger and a small drink of your choice, though de Wet adds that the staff usually declines the meal offer after their first two weeks at the job.

And when it comes to locally-supplied ingredients like the garnishes?

Considering Cape Town's drought situation, it's interesting to note how they maintain their supplier levels of foods coming in to their restaurants.

De Wet says, "We have a local supplier for onions, for example and even with the drought, we have a contingency relationship with the supplier, meaning they will supply products to us even if it means bringing international suppliers on board.

"So if we were unable to get produce in SA, we know that our current supplier has a relationship with their competitive counterpart in another country that will serve as the contingency."

Read more: Are almost 1 out of 2 SA women obese?

And now in pursuit of more juicy information.

6 questions about McD that have been bugging you, answered.

Sign up to W24’s newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our hot stories and giveaways.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.