What’s really in a McDonald’s hamburger?

What's really in a McDonald's hamburger? You may not want to know, but really need to.

What’s in a McDonald’s hamburger? A 100% beef patty that’s seasoned with a pinch of salt and pepper, topped with melty cheese, tangy pickles, minced onions, and (of course) ketchup and mustard. Duh.

Sounds pretty good, right? This is how the McDonad’s hamburger is advertised. Sounds simple enough. And from a real food perspective, it sounds… well, real. 

But what’s REALLY is in a McDonald’s hamburger?

Ah, I’m glad you asked. For the real answer, we have to dive a bit deeper. There are a lot of aspects of the McDonald’s menu that they won’t necessarily tell you at first glance. We have to dissect the ingredients to really see what’s hidden behind those Golden Arches.

It might not be information you want to hear if you’re a fan of the fast-food chain, but let’s get started regardless.

The McDonald’s hamburger deconstructed

What's really in a McDonald's hamburger? You may not want to know, but really need to.

Let’s take a quick look at what’s in a McDonalds hamburger as outlined in their nutritional information. It shows a fairly harmless ingredient list:

  • 100% beef patty
  • regular bun
  • pasteurized processed American cheese
  • ketchup
  • mustard
  • pickle slices
  • onions

Despite what many Americans think, I don’t see hamburgers as the typical  “junk food” villain. Don’t get me wrong, eating healthy is VERY important.

Under the right circumstances I am totally game for a real hamburger. And by “real” I mean that the beef is grass-fedthe cheese isn’t processed, the bun is sourdough or sprouted, and the condiments are not full of nasty stuff. Under the right circumstances, a burger can be a pretty good meal!

Of course, “the right circumstances” means a burger that is made of all-natural, real ingredients. And it might not surprise you to learn that the McDonald’s hamburger isn’t quite so real. In fact, you have to scroll down their 30-page nutritional information guide to get the whole scary truth.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

What’s REALLY in a McDonald’s Hamburger: The Ingredient Breakdown

Here’s the thing, in order to actually see what’s in a McDonalds burger, we can’t just look at the ingredients list. We have to break down the ingredients themselves to get an accurate look at what’s inside. In this section, we’re going to do just that, and you might not like what you see.

100% Beef Patty:

Ingredients: 100% pure USDA inspected beef; no fillers, no extenders. Prepared with grill seasoning (salt, black pepper).

Thankfully, McDonald’s and several other chains recently stopped using the “pink slime” in their meat patty. But the vast majority of fast food beef comes from CAFO (concentrated agricultural feeding operation) cows. Not only is this horrible for the animals and the environment, but eating meat from sick animals will only make you sick. 

Eat a McDonald’s hamburger and you might be getting a mouth full of antibiotics, hormones, and dangerous bacteria. So while it is “100% beef”, the quality of that beef is another issue altogether.

Regular Bun:

Ingredients: Enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar, yeast, soybean oil and/or canola oil, contains 2% or less of the following: salt, wheat gluten, calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride, dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: sodium stearoyllactylate, datem, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylatedmonoglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, enzymes, guar gum, calcium peroxide), sorbic acid, calcium propionate and/or sodium propionate (preservatives), soy lecithin.

Oh boy. Where do I start? How about we just look at the length of this ingredient list. All of this for a bun? Did you know you can make your own bread using just flour, salt, and water? Seriously. The extra 20 – 30 ingredients here is stuff your body doesn’t need.

Lets look at just a few of the above ingredients:

  • Ammonium chloride… sounds tasty right? Did you know it is also an ingredient in fireworks, safety matches and contact explosives? Eat up.
  • Ammonium sulfate is used most commonly as an artificial fertilizer for alkaline soils. It’s also in flame retardant materials. Ammonium sulfate activates yeast, so it helps to get industrially produced bread to rise.
  • The soybean and/or canola oil used here are most likely GMO. They are also foods I generally avoid for a number of reasons.
  • The high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), despite the desperate marketing strategies to persuade otherwise, is not natural. And because it’s in so much of our processed foods, not only is it hard to avoid, but it can be doing major damage to your health.
  • “Enriched” flour sounds harmless enough. But “enriched” just means that all the nutrition was taken out in the first place. Refined flours are also hard for your body to digest, even before the mess of chemicals are added to it.

I can’t even get through this whole list. But I think you get the point. Nothing really healthy or real here. The length of the ingredients list should be your first red flag, but when we actually break down those ingredients it becomes even more concerning.


Ingredients: Tomato concentrate from red ripe tomatoes, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, salt, natural flavors (vegetable source)

As if HFCS isn’t enough… let’s add some regular corn syrup to the mix! Not to mention that most corn is GMO. Did you know that recently the first long term study on the effects of GMO was released? The part that should freak you out: Massive tumors in rats who are fed GMO corn for two years.

Rat What's really in a McDonald's hamburger?Tumor Monsanto GMO Cancer Study image source

That’s after two years. GMOs have been in our market for 20.

Let’s talk about the “natural flavors.” What does that really mean? For me it means “don’t eat.” The term “natural flavors” can be used for a number of not-so-natural and definitely not-so-healthy ingredients including things like MSG, Aspartame and bugs (yes, bugs).


Ingredients: Distilled vinegar, water, mustard seed, salt, turmeric, paprika, spice extractive.

Okay, these look familiar. Except maybe “spice extractive.” What does that mean? Read this and try to figure it out… a little “iffy” for sure.

Pasteurized Process American Cheese:

Ingredients: Milk, water, milkfat, cheese culture, sodium citrate, salt, citric acid, sorbic acid (preservative), sodium phosphate, color added, lactic acid, acetic acid, enzymes, soy lecithin (added for slice separation)

Let’s just start with the name. I mean, come on. Cheese is milk’s chance for immortality and “pasteurized process American cheese” just sounds nasty.

Why are we messing with something so good? Pasteurization kills living enzymes. Although in this case it’s probably good since it can also kill the bad stuff that comes from milk from sick cows in horrific factories.

With all the added colors, preservatives, and other “goodies” I think I’ll skip the cheeseburger.

Pickle Slices:

Ingredients: Cucumbers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, alum, potassium sorbate (preservative), natural flavors (plant source), polysorbate 80, extractives of turmeric (color)

Another handful of chemicals. Let’s just highlight the polysorbate 80 for a moment. In general this chemical is considered safe and well tolerated. Although a small number of people may be sensitive to it, and it may be harmful to people with Crohn’s disease. (But don’t worry, that only affects between 400,000 and 600,000 people in North America. Ouch.)


Ingredients: Chopped onions.

Finally. An ingredient list I can get behind. Of course, I prefer my veggies organic (locally grown is even better) to avoid pesticides. But so far, the onions are your safest bet. However, when the rest of the ingredients are packed full of unexpected surprises, you should probably hope for a more substantial silver lining than “chopped onions”.

So… what’s the verdict about what’s really in a McDonald’s hamburger?

Well for an ingredient list with 50+ questionable items… I think I’ll pass on the McDonald’s hamburger. Forever. And before you think I have something against McDonald’s, realize that this list will look very similar for any fast food hamburger. So whether you get a quarter pounder or a Big Mac, you can expect a similar level of questionable ingredients.

Remember, food is what helps your body thrive. You need to eat real, healthy foods and sometimes enhance your diet with healthy supplements. Feed your body sick food and guess how you’ll end up? Sick.

Ultimately, however, it’s not McDonald’s we should be mad at. Nobody is forcing us to eat this garbage. What we need is to help educate people and let them know what they are putting in their bodies. I think Joel Salatin says it well:

What's in a McDonald's hamburger?

So the best solution to this problem isn’t to blame McDonald’s. At the end of the day, it’s a battle you aren’t going to win. You need to help empower people with information to make better choices. Share what you know. Being willing to change. Your body will thank you.

Finding Healthier Restaurant Food

I am not writing this article just to scare you. But sometimes, the truth is not what we necessarily want to hear. In order to know the dangers of what we are putting in our body at fast-food restaurants, we need to pay attention and we need to do our research. There are many restaurants with menu items that are much better than McDonalds, and with proper research you can find these yourself.

Of course, there are ways you can eat out and still eat healthy, and it all starts with proper research. When deciding where to eat, try to check out the ingredients list where available. You probably already know that fast food restaurants tend to use less natural ingredients than traditional restaurants. So when you can, opt for a place that you know cooks their food with natural ingredients from scratch. It may cost more, but your body will thank you in the long run.

And of course, when in doubt, you can always pick up some fresh ingredients yourself and cook something!

Still confused by all the information out there? You’re not alone!

Being informed and knowing nutrition is really your best weapon in an age where companies try their best to hide the true nature of their ingredients list.

It took me years to figure out this whole “healthy” eating thing, and that’s because the world is full of confusing information. Every “expert” is telling us something different, and it seems our lists of “shoulds” and “should not” eats are changing faster than we can keep up with.

If you’re like me and wish there was a simple, stress-free approach to healthy living then you’re in the right place. My guide Processed Free will help you easily navigate real food no matter where you are on your path to healthier living. Click here to check it out.


As you can see, eating healthy, natural food and eating a McDonald’s burger just doesn’t go hand-in-hand. However, this isn’t even to single out McDonald’s, because plenty of fast food restaurants do the exact same things. They want to hide their ingredients from you because it allows them to keep using cheap ingredients that are better for their bottom line.

If you take one thing from this article it’s that you should be doing your research on anything you eat. Confusing ingredients lists will always be an issue if you intend on eating restaurant food, but you can arm yourself with a knowledge of nutrition and an ability to read between the lines.

Stay Informed!

So do your research, check ingredients, and prepare your own food when possible. Healthy and informed eating isn’t always the fastest way to eat, but you will find that the benefits far outweigh the extra effort. 



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