First a couple of disclaimers. I am not particularly fond of McDonald’s French fries, and I am a fan of Michael Pollan’s writings on food and nutrition, particularly his classic book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in which he summarizes his 400 or so pages with the advice to “eat foods mainly of plant origin and don’t eat too much.” He is also a fan of home cooked meals, which is great, but sometimes his attacks on processed foods are overzealous.
In a widely circulated video Pollan blasts McDonald’s not for any nutritional shortcomings of its fries but for accepting only potatoes of a certain size and shape and shunning any with blemishes caused by aphids. That, Pollan suggests, forces farmers to use pesticides such as Monitor (methamidophos) which he deems to be particularly dangerous. Indeed he points out that this chemical “is so toxic that farmers who grow these potatoes in Idaho won’t venture outside and into their fields for five days after they spray.” He goes on to say that the potatoes have to be stored in giant sheds for six weeks so they have time to off gas all the chemicals in them. The video had quite an impact, triggering headlines like “watch this video and you will never eat McDonald’s French fries again.” The issue needs a closer look.
Yes, McDonald’s likes it’s potatoes to be of a certain size so that the fries are long and reach out in an appealing fashion from their container. It doesn’t mean that other potatoes are wasted. McDonald’s buys its fries from distributors who select the appropriate ones for the company and sell the others elsewhere. It is also true that McDonald’s does not want potatoes that are affected by “net necrosis,” a viral infection spread by aphids. Nobody wants to eat potatoes permeated with black streaks like a net. As far as farmers not wanting to go out into the fields, well, that is standard protocol after spraying with any pesticide. Intervals that have to be respected after spraying any pesticide are established by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Pollan’s notion about storing the potatoes for sixty days to off gas toxins is pure nonsense. Potatoes are routinely stored in large atmosphere controlled sheds because they have to be available year round. In any case, crops are monitored for pesticide residues and all such found on potatoes are way below established tolerance levels. There may be reasons to stay away from McDonald’s fries, but not because of any highlighted in this unnecessarily alarmist video. The fat content, the high glycemic index, the amount of salt added and maybe some of the compounds formed during high temperature frying are reason enough to make fries an occasional treat.