Eating McDonald’s french fries is like browsing social media sites late at night: it’s impossible to stop at just one. In fact, the fast food restaurant might just be as famous for its irresistible fries as it is for its nightmare-inducing clown mascot–but what, exactly, makes them stand out among the endless choices–waffle fries and curly fries and steak fries … oh my!–available to fried potato connoisseurs?
Three words: “natural beef flavoring.”
Turns out, the evolution of this signature ingredient happened by accident.
It dates back to the 1950s, when the tiny shortening company that originally supplied McDonald’s with vegetable oil–which extended fries’ shelf life–was too small to afford hydrogenation equipment, according to NPR. So the supplier offered an alternative: a blend of oil and beef fat.
While McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants ended up making the beef fat an essential part of their fry flavors, they had to come up with a substitute in the 1980s when health food advocates protested the amount of “bad” saturated fat it added.
Enter the “natural beef flavoring” that McDonald’s uses today, in addition to vegetable oil, that supplies the addictively meaty taste, much to fry lovers’ delight–and vegetarians’ chagrin. Yes, in case you’re wondering, McDonald’s beef flavoring is apparently not vegetarian; the fine print on their corporate site notes that its natural beef flavoring contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as its starters. Since settling a lawsuit settled in 2002 (with consumers who refrain from eating meat for moral, religious or health reasons claiming that they were misled into thinking the fries were vegetarian), McDonald’s has added a section to its website clarifying that its fries are neither vegetarian nor vegan-certified.
But still darn tasty.