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TikTok vs McDonald's: How influencers' claims of pesticides in fries could backfire

Influencers are harping once again about the evils of consuming McDonald's fries, but does anybody care? How true are these claims?
Tiktok user Courtney Swan recently dug up old claims about pesticides in McDonald's potatoes used to make fries (TikTok: @CourtneySwan, Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Tiktok user Courtney Swan recently dug up old claims about pesticides in McDonald's potatoes used to make fries (TikTok: @CourtneySwan, Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

There's nothing more evergreen, more soothing than a fresh batch of McDonald's french fries — a favorite no matter what the season. For some people, the very first time they dug into a packet of fries and discovered the warm comfort of greasy goodness exploding in their mouths remains a heavenly memory. For others, fries are just not their thing. And then, there is the third group of people who dig up conspiracies about this fast food item.

There is no end to the rabbit hole of online articles and theories exploring and exposing what these fries are actually made of. Articles, like 'You will never eat McDonald's fries after this', or 'Did you know McDonald's fries THIS ingredient,' are incredibly widespread. A new one pops up almost every day ever since journalist Michael Pollan gave his 2013 lecture. In his talk, he alleged that there were harmful pesticides in the potatoes used to make McDonald's fries. The lecture resurfaced on the internet once again this year when a TikTok user shared a clip from Pollan's talk, making it go viral, with social media losing sleep over the harrowing discovery made about their comfort food. But is there any truth to it? Pollan's talk has since been unsubstantiated by many, but there's a high chance this could backfire on the TikToker too.


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Tiktok vs McDonald's fries

Identified as Courtney Swan, the TikTok user brought up the long-rumored danger of eating McDonald's fries. Without saying anything on the topic herself, or explaining what the debate on the topic is about, Swan, whose TikTok username is @CourtneySwan pulls up the clip from Pollan's 2013 lecture entitled 'How Cooking Can Change Your Life', where he addressed the Royal Society for Arts (RSA). 

“A very common defect of Russet Burbank potatoes is called net necrosis,” Pollan says in the clip. “And you see potatoes with little brown lines sometimes, or spots that comes through it. Well, McDonald’s won’t buy them if your potatoes have that. And the only way to eliminate that is to eliminate an aphid and the only way to do that is with a pesticide called Monitor that is so toxic that the farmers who grow these potatoes in Idaho won’t venture outside into their fields for five days after they spray [it].” 

The clip then sees Pollan claim that after harvesting these potatoes, they have to be placed in atmosphere-controlled sheds which are “the size of a football stadium”. Potatoes are allegedly stored in these giant sheds for six weeks to “off-gas the chemicals in them," claimed Pollan in his lecture. The recent TikTok video amassed 62,000 likes and just over 2,000 comments in the very first day it was posted, once again proving just how obsessed the planet is with the idea of fries. It wasn't enough to just shade french fries for the health problems it could lead to, as the world of clickbait content had a field day writing articles like “watch this video and you will never eat McDonald’s French fries again.”

What are McD fries made of?

McDonald's french fries might have a whopping total of 19 ingredients, but they do not have pesticides, as alleged by Pollan. It might be shocking for some to learn that these fries are also not vegan, or even vegetarian. Back in 2015, former MythBuster Grant Imahara was appointed to uncover the 'secret' behind the taste of McDonald's fries. One of its crucial ingredients was revealed to be the natural beef flavor present in the oil blend used to fry the potatoes.

Although experts argue natural beef flavor can be vegetarian, the fries are definitely not vegan as they have hydrolyzed milk. As for the other 18 ingredients going into creating the perfect McDonald's packet of fries, they are: potatoes, canola oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, hydrolyzed wheat, citric acid, dimethylpolysiloxane, dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate, salt, canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, TBHQ, citric acid, and dimethylpolysiloxane.

For those confused, ingredients like TBHQ, for instance, is used to “preserve the freshness of the oil.” The other confusing ingredient, dimethylpolysiloxane, is said to be an anti-foaming agent that "helps keep the oil from splattering," Imahara had noted in a video on his findings. “It’s approved for use in a number of many other very familiar foods," he added. But that's as far as additional ingredients used, besides the potatoes, oil and seasonings, in McDonald's fries. Those who knew this and encountered Swan's video, weren't going to sit back and see innocent Tiktokers be misinformed.

McDonald's crew member Samantha Medina prepares french fries as the McDonald's restaurant stock price reached record territory on April 25, 2017 in Miami, Florida. The company continues to beat expectations and credits changes to its menu and other new initiatives it has launched. (Getty Images)

Fries-wars backfires

Replying in the comments on Swan's TikTok, some users, claiming to be potato farmers, and others who say they know farmers who grow potatoes for the fast-food giant, debunked Pollan's speech. "I can confirm this is false information as a farmer in Idaho who grows potatoes,” user Sheena Rush wrote in the comments section of Swan's video. Another user by the name Bradly Cook wrote: "My friend grows McDonald’s potatoes in Idaho. This is not the case at all.”

But Rush and Cook aren't the only ones jumping to Mcdonald's defense as facts stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cull Pollan's warnings right at the start. According to the CDC, the use of Monitor insecticide was canceled in the U.S. in 2009, voluntarily - meaning the chemical wasn't even being used at the time Pollan gave his lecture. McGill University also reported on McDonald's having stopped using Monitor in 2009, writing that: “while Pollan doles out the good ‘eat food, mainly plants, not too much’ advice, his attacks on processed foods are, often times, overzealous. Such is the case of Pollan and McDonald’s fries.”

Pollan's vehement critique of the way McDonald's procure their potatoes is further refuted by Mcgill University, who wrote in their report that contrary to the journalist's claims, potatoes aren't wasted when McDonald's discards them. Explaining the process, the university writes "McDonald’s buys its fries from distributors who select the appropriate ones for the company and sell the others elsewhere." They further note that claims of McDonald's refusing to buy potatoes with "net necrosis" aren't false, simply because the food giant wants their fries to look appealing and customers aren't likely to relish fries streaked with black net-like markings on them.


Pollan's warning about how farmers do not venture into the fields after spraying insecticides is pointless. McGill University says this is the standard protocol with any insecticide or pest control spray, as established by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The article also rubbished Pollan's claims of these potatoes being further stored in sheds to "gas off" toxins. They are put in giant sheds simply because they need to be available all year round. The report also asserts that all crops are monitored for chemicals, and any residue remaining is usually deemed negligible.

The article also insists that the pesticide methamidophos - trade name 'Minitor'  - has not been used since 2009. But Tiktok influencers aren't quite fond of verifying facts for themselves it seems. Maybe it is the thrill of clout chasing or the easy pull of clickbait but videos and articles warning others about fast food joints are often unverified or have dodgy sources. Crucial steps to verify facts get omitted from the narrative.

McDonald has a long history of pursuing lawsuits against those they think have harmed their brand by diluting its appeal. This is especially true of their tradename or trademarks.

But in 1990, McDonald's also took environmental campaigners Helen Steel and Dave Morris to court after they distributed leaflets entitled "What's Wrong with McDonald's?" on the streets of London. The high-profile trial, which came to be known as the McLibel Case, lasted nearly ten years, the longest in English legal history that eventually impacted defamation laws in UK. 

The war against fries isn't new, and thanks to recurring baseless social media content, it won't be over anytime soon. The fast-food chain is allegedly fighting several lawsuits over the ingredients of McDonald's fries -- cases that the corporation has attempted to consolidate. McDonald's has also provided a more complete ingredient list for its French fries, more recently, in order to defend itself.   

Luckily for Mcdonald's, fast food lovers hardly ever care what goes inside their bodies. After all, it's not called a 'Happy Meal' for nothing, is it?