The untold truth of McDonald's salads

McDonald's might have started as a small hamburger stand in the 1940s, but that tiny company eventually became a phenomenally successful global business that has sold billions upon billions of burgers. The fast food chain obviously knows a thing or two about hamburgers and fries, but what about salads?

It took the Golden Arches over 40 years to do it, but eventually they rolled out their first salad in the mid-80s, following competitors who had already been selling the fresh meal option for several years. At the time, rival Burger King trolled, "It's good to finally see McDonald's, which calls itself the leader, following our lead [with salads]," but McDonald's brushed it off, saying confidentially, "We don't look back at the competition. We see no need to get into the battle for second place." And true to their word, Mickey D's has managed to become the world's biggest seller of salads.

But onto the juicier tidbits — when you've sold that many salads, there's bound to be some dirt, right? Let's start with the poop salad scandal and move on from there.

The most unsavory ingredient of all

July 2018 will not be a month that McDonald's remembers fondly, as an outbreak of cyclospora was linked to salads consumed at the Golden Arches. Cyclospora, a parasite that causes intestinal infection, is spread by consuming food or drink that has been contaminated with feces — thus the headlines proclaiming a "poop salad" scandal were born.

As of August 23, 2018, the FDA reported more than 500 laboratory-confirmed cases of the infection in those who ate McDonald's salads across 15 states (primarily located in the Midwest), which are now determined to be attributed to the romaine and carrots contained within the Fresh Express salad mix sold by the fast food chain. The incident prompted McDonald's to immediately pull the salads from their menus at around 3,000 stores and affected distribution centers, and the company has since procured an alternate supplier for its lettuce blend, according to their statement.

Of the almost 500 cases of cyclospora reported, 24 people have been hospitalized, and there have been no deaths related to the outbreak.

Why a food poisoning expert would never order one

Given all the trouble that McDonald's experienced with their salads and all the romaine lettuce recalls in 2018, it might not come as a big surprise to learn that a fast food salad is firmly on the "do not eat" list of a food poisoning expert. Here's the reason you might want to skip the leafy greens and stick to a Quarter Pounder instead:

Business Insider spoke to food poisoning advocate and attorney Bill Marler, who said that the "healthy" menu option could be one of the riskiest. Speaking about the dangers of pre-washed, bagged lettuce, Marler said, "Not every lettuce leaf in the field is contaminated E. coli, but some of them are. And when you mix and match it at a processing facility and chop it up, you get what you get." He further explained that because salads contain many different raw ingredients, and without the potential to kill germs in the cooking process, the chances of contamination go up dramatically.

The chicken has a lot of ingredients

None of us go into McDonald's thinking that the cooks are in the back breaking down a fresh chicken and grilling it to order for our salads and sandwiches, but what might be somewhat surprising is that their Artisan Grilled Chicken (used in their premium salads) contains 12 ingredients. Of course, this is a substantial improvement from the 18 ingredients the chain's chicken contained prior to 2015, when they removed several "unpronounceable" items from the equation and stopped cooking the fillets in liquid margarine. 

These days, they're cooked in clarified butter, and the list is highly pronounceable, with most of the ingredients there to lend flavor to the chicken, like garlic powder, lemon juice concentrate, honey, and onion powder. McDonald's said the change came due to consumer demand for "simple, clean ingredients," and promised,"It's a very real chicken experience — something closer to what you make in your own home." Minus 10 or so ingredients, that is...

They might be expired

Just how fresh can you expect your fast food salad to be? According to the McDonald's Canada website, "We prepare our salads fresh a number of times every day. Once made, our salads have an eight-hour shelf life..."

But when a Reddit user posted a picture of a salad marked with conflicting expiration date stickers, former McDonald's employees agreed that they may not be as fresh as we think. "The one was covering the other. When we bought it, it was about an hour away from the expiration date... but THAT date was covering the real date of expiration which was the previous day!" the customer lamented. Other Redditors chimed in saying, "This happens all the time with salads at my store. Whoever put the second sticker on was a bit of a moron for not removing the first sticker." One former manager confirmed, saying, "Hate to say it, but this kind of crap is pretty common with the salads. Stores see it as a cheap way to save on food cost." As if we needed another excuse to skip a salad.

They have to keep up with the hipsters

How can a fast food chain selling salads for less than $6 be expected to keep up with the increasingly popular specialty (read: shockingly expensive) salad eateries? Maybe they can't compete with an ever-changing rotation of seasonal produce, or offer options like quinoa and chickpeas, but they can make small changes to keep their offerings a bit more current. For McDonald's salads, along with reducing the number of ingredients in their chicken, that mostly meant doing away with one of the most maligned ingredients on the planet: iceberg lettuce.

In 2015, in response to consumer demand, the company rolled out their new and improved salad blend — a combination of chopped romaine, baby spinach, and baby kale — but added even more color to the mix in 2016, with red leaf lettuce and carrot curls. Not only are the dark leafy greens considerably more nutrient dense than iceberg lettuce, but each premium salad now contains at least two-and-a-half cups of vegetables. Take that, hipster salad shops.

But they still probably aren't the healthiest choice on the menu

Now, it stands to reason that if we're eating two-and-a-half cups of veggies, a McDonald's salad must be the smartest menu choice for those of us watching what we eat, right? Not so fast...

Yes, those dark leafy greens are a great source of vitamins and antioxidants, and yes, they are low in calories. But it's not the leafy greens we're worried about here — it's some of the other things in your bowl. That fried chicken and creamy dressing can derail things in a hurry. Consider this: The Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 530 calories, 28 grams of fat, 10 grams of sugar, and 1110 milligrams of sodium. At first glance, a Southwest Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Salad, which has 520 calories, 25 grams of fat, 9 grams of sugar, and 960 milligrams of sodium, looks to be the better choice all around. But don't forget the dressing... once you squeeze every last drop of Creamy Southwest Dressing from that packet, your salad just hit 630 calories, 33 grams of fat, 11 grams of sugar, and 1250 milligrams of sodium. We're not telling you not to eat the salad, it's just good to have all the facts.

How to order, according to experts

Let's say you've got a salad craving that just won't quit, and your only option is the McDonald's drive-thru. According to nutrition experts, here's how you should order your fast food salad to trim the calories and fat:

  • Registered dietitian Elaine Magee recommends switching to low-fat dressings, or using only half the packet. We know... the dressing is arguably the best part of any salad, but considering McDonald's low-fat options are less than half the calories and fat of their other offerings, it might be worth it. 
  • "I'd skip the soft drinks and opt for Dasani water and then I'd have the Premium Southwest Salad with grilled — not crispy — chicken," Amy Shapiro, RD, tells Eat This, Not That! "I like that the beans and corn in the salad offer up some fiber. To lighten it up a bit, I'd have them hold the cheese and tortilla strips and use only half of the dressing."
  • And if you can stand to do it, forgo the bacon. It's a hard pill to swallow, but it'll save you a cool 90 calories and 7 grams of fat when you order the Bacon Ranch Grilled Chicken Salad.

They're not a best seller

Considering that McDonald's is the world's biggest seller of salads, this fact might be somewhat surprising. But just because they're not the company's best selling menu item doesn't mean they don't sell a ton — it just means they sell a ton more burgers. Eater reports that according to a Bloomberg News report in 2013, McDonald's admitted that salads accounted for just two to three percent of their sales. But think about it this way — low as that number may seem, two percent of $1,000,000, for instance, is still $20,000, so it's not like those salads are worthless.

Interestingly enough, the company doesn't seem too eager to push their side salads, and actually encouraged employees not to offer them as an alternative to french fries as part of their Extra Value Meals. As reported by CNBC, a training guide produced by McDonald's for their employees states, "Do not suggest side salad as an option [for EVMs], customers should request it when they order."

Would you like rats with that?

Picture this: You're digging into your Mickey D's lunch after hitting the drive-thru. Maybe you're a little distracted with the kids. Maybe you're blindly stabbing your fork into the bowl of greens. But you've definitely already eaten some of your salad. And then you hit something that feels a little... off. Spoiler alert: It's a dead roof rat

That's what happened to NFL coach Todd Haley's wife, Christine Haley, and their nanny, Kathryn Kelley, anyway, and the family sued McDonald's for a cool $1.7 million in 2006. According to the lawsuit, the family sought damages for the severe mental and physical pain suffered by the women, and because their dining habits had been altered due to the incident (ratty salad will do that to a person). According to the Dallas Observer, the case was settled and both parties signed confidentiality agreements, so we'll never know just how much that dead rat cost the company. 

McDonald's Next is changing the idea of typical fast food salads

Maybe you've sworn off fast food salads by now, but remember, poop and dead rats aren't standard ingredients at the Golden Arches. If you're still not convinced, the company has an idea that just might get you to reconsider your no-salad stance.

McDonald's Next, which debuted in Hong Kong in 2016, is changing the fast food salad experience. The eatery has done away with the classic red and yellow color scheme in favor of a sleek, modern vibe, and while you can still get a burger, it's the salad bar that's the star of the show. Featuring around 20 ingredients, you can assemble the salad of your dreams with options like shaved Parmesan, sweet corn, a quinoa and cous cous mix, portobello mushroom, and crayfish egg mayo.

CNN reports that McDonald's did not return a request for comment on whether more Next restaurants were planned for other cities, so we can only hope one pops up in the US soon.