A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do McDonald's milkshakes contain seaweed?

November 27, 1992

Dear Cecil:

I have heard that McDonald's milkshakes contain seaweed. Can this be true?

Cecil replies:

Absolutely. But the real shocker is that every McDonald's hamburger contains chopped-up pieces of — brace yourself — dead cow. So let's not get hung up on a little seaweed.

McDonald's milkshakes, along with a great many other products, contain a seaweed extract called carrageenan, which is used as a thickener and emulsifier. (It keeps the butterfat in the shake from separating out.) Carrageenan comes from Irish moss, a red, bushy seaweed that grows on coastal rocks near, among other places, Carragheen, Ireland, whence the name. (You can also find it in Maine, the Canadian maritimes, and various European localities.)

You either collect the stuff on the beach by hand or use a special long-handled rake. Carrageenan is extracted from the moss with hot water and used in milk-based products, soft drinks (for "body"), gelatin (it's the part that jells), etc. Not all that carcinogenic and what the hell, centuries ago they used it to treat ulcers. So hold your nose and swig away.

A clarification

Dear Cecil:

In your column on carrageenan, the thickener used in McDonald's shakes, you reminded the writer that the company's most famous product contains "pieces of . . . dead cow." I am sure you are aware most beef products come from dead steer.

Cecil replies:

Jonathan, I have a shameful confession to make. Many years ago, in response to a particularly dimwitted letter, I wrote, "If ignorance were cornflakes, you'd be General Mills." Priceless, eh? Here's the confession: General Mills doesn't make cornflakes. However, it was funnier that way. Same deal in the present instance. Cow = funny. Steer = stupid. Just a little insight into the twisted world of the media, where you never want to let the facts get in the way of a good joke.

Hold on there

Dear Cecil:

Regarding the reader who wrote claiming that McDonald's hamburgers are made of "dead steer" and not, as you stated in an earlier column, "dead cow": my source says you're both right, although you, Cecil, are righter, ounce for ounce.

Back in the late 70s my husband put himself through college by working at a factory that produced hamburgers solely for McDonald's. This was done by grinding together bovine flesh from two very different sources. The lean meat came from dairy cows who had outlived their ability to profitably produce milk.

Since dairy cows aren't fed the fattening-up diet beef steers get, their flesh is exceptionally lean, and thus exceptionally flavorless. To compensate, the workers added fat from beef steers (in chunks that were referred to around the factory as "plate") during the grinding to achieve a fattier, tastier final product. Since these burgers contain more lean meat than fat, they can be said to contain more cow than steer. (If memory serves, the fat ratio they tried to maintain was 20 percent.)

This manufacturing process also sheds a little light on McDonald's profitability. Since the steer fat is just scrap trimmed away during the butchering process, and the lean cow meat is essentially a waste byproduct of the dairy industry, they're getting both components of their burgers cheaply. Ingenious, no?

Cecil replies:

See? Even my jokes contain deep truths. I queried McDonald's and got this response from spokesperson Jane Hulbert:

"McDonald's hamburgers are 100 percent pure domestic beef without fillers or seasonings. To maintain our customers' expectations and preference for lean, flavorful hamburgers, we carefully select fine cuts of grain fed beef and leaner cuts from dairy cattle. This is a typical combination for quality ground beef. More importantly, we have found that this combination results in a flavorful hamburger that also has a significantly lower percentage of fat (20 percent) than the government limits (30 percent).

"Contrary to your reader's letter, we never under any circumstances use waste or scraps. We use only select cuts of grain fed beef. Our ground beef suppliers are designated solely to McDonald's and their facilities are considered the most modern in the industry. In addition to meeting USDA requirements, our suppliers have worked closely with us to develop very strict, detailed specifications and requirements that are strictly enforced."

In sum, then: (1) yes, McDonald's does mix meat from dairy cows and steers — girl cows and boy (OK, ex-boy) cows, if you'll permit me to murder the terminology; (2) yes, the resultant product does have about 20 percent fat; (3) yes, the boy cow part does contribute much of the flavor; but (4) no, they don't use boy cow scraps, just standard cuts of beef.

To clear up the discrepancy in item #4, I spoke to your husband, the guy who worked in the hamburger factory. He said it wasn't really steer scrap they threw into the grinder, rather what he described as "beef bellies" — fatty cuts of meat having the appearance of bacon. Defending the honor of her company, Jane replied that the stuff didn't look like bacon and wasn't beef bellies (a term rarely used in the beef industry) but beef flank, the part below the rib cage — a fine distinction, you may say, but it sounds better. Still, give McDonald's some credit — what you wind up with is a low (well, lower) fat hamburger, no small thing in a fat conscious age.

One last detail

Dear Cecil:

What is the name of the animal that chews its cud and says "moo"? There's a plural form, "cattle," but if we want to refer to just one, all we can say is which sex it is: "cow" or "bull." We know Jumbo is a bull elephant, but what is Ferdinand — a bull "mooing animal"? Please address this grave injustice.

Cecil replies:

Hmm. Guess "bovine mammal" won't cut it, will it? "Ox" might do, but usually suggests a castrated bull. Looks like we're stuck with "neat" or "beef" (plural beeves). The former is archaic and the latter, in this sense, might as well be. But use it if you want.

A word from the women's moovement

Dear Cecil:

Admit it for once: in cattle the feminine is the universal term, perhaps due to the ancient association of the cow with milk production compared to the more recent use of the cow for meat. Ferdinand is a bull cow, however oxymoronic that may sound to our he-means-everyone ears. This may be the only remnant in English of the gender parity more common in archaic speech. Cow may be the last word left which means both "female animal" and "generic animal." Get used to it, guys, she's coming back!

Cecil replies:

Whatever you say, Robin.

The Canadians have a word for it

To the Teeming Millions:

Readers may recall our discussion last year of the plight of the bovine mammal — you know, the one that goes "moo" — for which there is no gender-neutral word. You got your cows (girl bovine mammals), you got your bulls (boy bovine mammals), you got your cattle (plural you-know-whats), but no generic singular term like "horse" or "sheep." This puts people who are conscientious about their use of the language in the embarrassing position of having to examine the bovine mammal's secondary sex characteristics (admittedly pretty hard to miss) in order to address it properly.

Appalled by this gap in English vocabulary, Arthur Black, host of the "Basic Black" show on Canada's CBC radio network, teamed up with this column to challenge his listeners to come up with a gender neutral term. They responded big time. Proposed terms included moo unit ("Can be sung to the tune of 'Moon River,'" writes Catherine Ryle), moo, moovine, cudder, camoo (for the existentialist crowd, one supposes), dumal (Dumbest Ugly Mammal Afoot in the Land, "which might be confusing because it could apply to so many people we know," writes Michael Nitsch), moocat, Bovis and Beefhead (inevitable, I suppose), cattluno, isobeef, cobul, enivob (bovine spelled backwards), boeuf (popular in Quebec), wildlife on the hoof, moobovver, land whale ("Will add a degree of romance to an increasingly bland vocabulary. 'He looked at a field of cattle' can become `he gazed at the herd of land whales roaming majestically through the sea of grass,'" writes James Parker. Thank you, James), steakosaurus, mootle, bovone, medmuffmak (short for "meadow muffin maker"), and many more.

Some listeners waxed poetic:

Not having a name, when relating a story,
To wit, bull or cow, is tragic and sorry.
Let's recycle a word that, it is seeming,
Has no further use, barely a meaning.
I propose that unsexed bovine be a Tory.

(For those ignorant of Canadian affairs, the Tories had lost huge in recent elections.)

Many listeners wrote to say that there already was a perfectly good gender-neutral word: cattle beast. Cecil has never heard this term, which sounds like something out of a Doctor Seuss book. Other pre-existing words include bovid (strictly speaking, any member of the family Bovidae, which includes sheep, goats, and buffalo as well as cattle, but surely we can work something out), and my personal favorite, bullamacow, a pidgin word apparently in common use in the islands of the southwest Pacific. If any of these work for you, far be it from me to object.

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