Repeating the ingredients list brings me merit

I’ve seen this ingredient list for Chicken McNuggets posted a number of times in the last few days, most recently here.

Ingredients: White Boneless Chicken, Water, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Salt, Wheat Starch, Natural Flavoring [Botanical Source], Safflower Oil, Dextrose, Citric Acid), Sodium Phosphates, Natural Flavor (Botanical Source). Battered and Breaded with: Water, Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Yellow Corn Flour, Bleached Wheat Flour, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Lactate), Spices, Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Corn Starch.

I’d like to mention at this point that I have never eaten a Chicken McNugget in my life and I haven’t been in a McDonald’s within my memory. I have absolutely no interest in defending the company or the industrial production of food. The problem I have is that the narrow obsession with things like the physical processes involved in the production of meat (“pink slime”, mechanically separated poultry) and the familiarity of ingredients. I see this as a focus on the symbolic purity of food — the ick factor — the privileging of traditional techniques over modern ones. It does absolutely nothing to make headway against the realities of industrial livestock production. People who sneer at a McNugget are perfectly happy to boast about the huge quantity of bacon they just ate, even if that bacon came from a factory-farmed pig who lived and died in torture.

So I’m going to go over this ingredients list item by item and explain what’s in it so I have something to point people at if I ever see this dumb thing again.

White Boneless Chicken, Water

I hope I don’t have to explain these.

Food Starch-Modified

This is corn starch or some other plant starch that has been processed in some way. It might be chemical processing, but what you get in the end is basically just one or another form of sugar.

Salt, Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Salt, Wheat Starch, Natural Flavoring [Botanical Source], Safflower Oil, Dextrose, Citric Acid), Sodium Phosphates, Natural Flavor (Botanical Source)

This is basically seasoning salt, but: autolyzed yeast extract is just brewer’s yeast (a leftover from beer brewing) with a lot of salt. It’s sold under brand names like Marmite and Vegemite. It has a lot of glutamic acid, which is what imparts the “umami” or richness flavor to foods like mushrooms, meat, etc.

People frequently claim that autolyzed yeast extract is just MSG under another name. To an extent, they’re right: they’re both glutamate sources. The reason this isn’t a problem is because there’s nothing wrong with MSG, either.

Salt is salt. Wheat starch is wheat starch. The natural flavorings are just spices of one type or another. Oil is oil. Dextrose is a type of sugar, probably added to fill out whatever powder mixture they’re mixing into the meat. Citric acid is a preservative and it makes things taste tart; it’s ubiquitous in food preparation, and is sold to bakers as “sour salt” (and has been for ages).

Battered and Breaded with: Water, Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid)

This is flour, with micronutrients added so that poor people who eat a lot of white bread don’t get deficiency illness.

Yellow Corn Flour, Bleached Wheat Flour

Bleached wheat flour = cake flour.

Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Lactate)

This is baking soda and baking powder. Baking powder is where people who like to freak out about food merit really get to shine, because baking powder tends to consist of chemicals with interesting names, and most of those chemicals have industrial uses. So they get to say “chicken mcnuggets contain SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE, which is a CHEMICAL also used in TANNING LEATHER and OIL WELL DRILLING.” Which is true! And also meaningless.

I’m not going to go down each of these, but feel free to look them up. They’re all in baking powder. Every one of these is likely to have been in your grandma’s zucchini bread. Also, calcium lactate is what forms the crystals in hard cheese.

Spices, Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Corn Starch.

And with this terrifying litany of unspeakable industrial effluents, the ingredient list ends.

The only thing on this entire list which is likely to be the product of modern, highly sophisticated food science is the modified starch, which is there mostly to control moisture and affect the texture. Nothing else even begins to be scary.