6 Shocking Fast-Food Secrets

A hamburger, fries, and a large strawberry shake. It's the recipe for an all-American meal—one on which we spend a whopping $124 billion dollars a year, according to the National Restaurant Association. In addition to contributing to the country's obesity epidemic, our penchant for fast food may be negatively affecting our health in other serious ways. From low-quality meat to potentially dangerous chemicals, read on to learn about what you're really eating—and what your local fast-food joint isn't telling you.

  • The more the merrier. There was a time when hamburgers were made from the beef of one cow. But due to ever-growing demands for meat, a typical fast-food hamburger may contain hundreds of strips of beef from different cattle, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means that the meat from one sick cow could potentially infect a greater number of hamburgers, increasing your risk of disease exposure.
  • It's addictive stuff. According to a number of studies, including one from George Washington University, high-fat, high-sugar foods may be psychologically addictive. What's more, Princeton University researchers found that rats displayed symptoms of withdrawal—chattering teeth and the shakes—when their high-sugar diets were suddenly replaced with sugar-free ones, suggesting that sugar may be physically addictive.

  • Fat breeds fat. According to a study published in New Scientist magazine, if you have too much fat in your system, or just ingest too much too suddenly in one fatty meal, your brain becomes less reactive to weight-regulating hormones. A meal high in fat may dull the hormonal signals your body usually sends to let you know you know you're full, causing you to keep eating long after you should put the food down.

  • Vegetarian? Don't eat the fries. The taste of fast-food fries are determined not by the potato, but rather by the way the potato is cooked. Until very recently, McDonald's fries were cooked with 93 percent beef tallow, so the fries actually contained more saturated fat than a hamburger, according to Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation. Due to some bad publicity, the chain switched to vegetable oil in 1990. However, McDonald's still continues to use an ingredient it refers to as "natural flavoring," which it says comes from an animal, although it won't reveal which one.

  • Tastes like strawberries. A typical artificial strawberry flavor, like the kind found in a Burger King strawberry milkshake, contains approximately 50 unrecognizable ingredients, such as amyl acetate, isobutyle butyrate, and 4- methylacetophenone, according to Schlosser. The irony of it all? Not one ingredient is the actual fruit. Although the strawberry flavor arises from a mixture of many different chemicals, a single compound supplies the dominant aroma. Smelled alone, that chemical provides an unmistakable berry fragrance we all know and love.

  • Can you pass the Potassium Bromate? This dough conditioner and bleaching agent, which was once widely used in bread baking, is considered a category 2B (possibly carcinogenic to humans) carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. In 1993, the World Health Organization recommended its removal from all foods, and though it has been banned in many countries, it's still permitted in the United States and Japan, where it continues to be used in buns at Burger King, Arby's, and Wendy's, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.