The Secret Ingredient That Makes McDonald's Hash Browns So Delicious

McDonald's hamburgers may have been what put the restaurant on the map when it was just a growing chain making a name for itself in the 1950s, but over the years, the fast-food brand has developed a bevy of menu items that a lot of people find themselves craving. Among the many things that customers love to order at McDonald's, some notable ones are the cold and creamy McFlurries, the classic Big Mac with the signature secret sauce, the "World Famous Fries," and of course, the hash browns — every bit as praiseworthy as the Egg McMuffin. The spud-tastic fried goodness ranks at the top of the list when it comes to hash browns at fast-food chains.

There's a lot you may not know about McDonald's hash browns, but the most surprising fact might be the special ingredient the chain uses to make this menu item taste so good. What's the secret? Natural beef flavoring.

McDonald's fries its hash browns with this secret ingredient

To understand exactly what natural beef flavoring is, we first have to review a piece of McDonald's history. From the start of the business, the chain fried their French fries (and their hash browns, when a breakfast menu was introduced in the 1970s) in a mixture of cottonseed oil and beef tallow, or rendered fat from beef. This mixture made for flavorful and delicious hash browns and fries, but the downside was that using beef tallow meant these menu items were high in saturated fat (via Yahoo! Life).

When McDonald's opted to make its food more healthy, the chain switched to vegetable oil for its potato sides in 1990. However, to keep the taste of the fries and hash browns the same, the restaurant company added beef flavor under "natural flavors" on the list of ingredients.

The addition of the flavoring became cause for a lawsuit against McDonald's in 2001. People who abstain from consuming meat due to moral, religious, or health reasons sued the chain under the claim that they were mistakenly led to believe that the chain's fries were vegetarian (via Eater).

Why McDonald's got sued over the secret ingredient it uses for its hash browns

While the beef flavor that McDonald's uses does not actually contain any beef, food scientists managed to determine the specific amino acids that give real beef its flavor and then recreated the same taste with cheaper and more common ingredients: wheat and milk. The natural beef flavoring is made with hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients, so it is not vegan (via Southern Living).

McDonald's ended up settling in 2002 and has since clearly listed natural beef flavoring in the nutritional information for its hash browns and French fries and indicated that neither of these sides are vegetarian or vegan-certified (via Eater).

Though the beef flavor prevents McDonald's hash browns from being a viable option for those who don't eat meat, the ingredient is what makes the breakfast side taste so delectable to the rest of us.