“Avoid These Fast Food Items,” Say Fast Food Employees

by Paul Michael on 16 August 2012 16 comments
Photo: nateOne

We all know fast food is not good for us. Most nutrition experts agree that it should be eaten “rarely or never.” But having said that, most of us will grab a meal from a fast food restaurant sometimes. I know I am guilty of grabbing “junk food” when I am in a rush or am too tired to cook something.

So if you’re someone who eats fast food, be it rarely or more often than you should, it doesn’t hurt to know what to avoid. Here are the fast food items you should stay away from, and some general tips to keep you from getting serious junk food remorse. (See also: 22 Reasons to Stop Drinking Soda)

Note: These tips come from people who have worked in the fast food business, via reddit. I cannot verify their accuracy 100%, but I have only posted those tips that were repeated by several different individuals.

1. “Unusual” Pizza Toppings

If you go for the normal pizza toppings, like pepperoni, sausage, ham, pineapple, and the usual veggies, you should be fine. But when you start ordering pizzas with more exotic toppings, you risk getting some older produce on your pie. The reason is simple — regular toppings are used up quickly and replaced often. If they go off, they have plenty left in stock to replace them. However, the quirky items, like meatballs, green olives, artichokes, and sun-dried tomatoes, are in short supply. They could be sitting out longer, and they may well be older than other toppings when they’re cooked.

2. Wendy’s Chili

This one has been covered before in an article I wrote on employee secrets, but it still deserves a mention in this list. When you order Wendy’s chili, you might be getting old hamburgers that have been left around all day. They get boiled and mashed up, and chili mix is added.

3. Sweet Teas

It appears that fast food places like to put the sweet in sweet tea. Some places are adding around one pound of sugar to a gallon of the stuff. However, it’s worth noting that almost all of the soft drinks out there have a high sugar content, so you’re better off sticking with water. And it’s free.

4. Vegetarian and Vegan Items

In some of the bigger, busier fast food chains, ordering vegetarian and vegan items should come with a warning — “this product may contain traces of meat.” The reason is laziness and poor hygiene standards. When it’s rush hour, or when it’s just way easier to do so, cooks will sometimes use the same cooking utensils for the vegetarian and vegan options as they do for meat products.

5. Anything Ending in "Nugget"

Chicken nuggets are clearly the biggest culprit here, although no one is ruling out other kinds of meat. Basically, chicken nuggets are made from mechanically separated meat (MSM), which is created through a process that extracts every last piece of flesh, meat, and sinew from the bones of the animal. This is then ground into a gruesome paste that is then dyed, flavored, shaped, and put in a box for you to eat. You can read more facts about this here, as well as some of the statements about MSM that are not true. 

6. “Fresh” Grilled Chicken

It may be a healthier option than fried chicken, but don’t go thinking that you’re getting something delicious and nutritious. It is common practice in many fast food restaurants, including McDonald’s and Burger King, to squirt liquid margarine on the grill and the chicken. And when it’s sitting in the holding drawer, guess what…more liquid margarine goes on to keep it juicy.

7. Anything Close to Closing Time

You know how it is. You’ve been out at a bar or club and feel hungry. Or you’re working very late. But whatever the reason, sometimes you want to grab a bite before you go home, and the flickering light in the distance is like an oasis. It's a fast food joint, and it’s just about to close. They’ll hook you up with a fresh burger or a great pizza, right? Well, think again. Chances are the employees are tired and want to go home, and they don’t really care about breaking out all the ingredients again to feed you. So they might give you whatever’s left, possibly telling you they’re “out” of certain items in order to guide you to the ones they’ve got sitting under the heat lamps. If you must eat something that late, go to a grocery store and put together a sandwich with fresh ingredients. It’s quick, cheap, and a much better option.

8. Outback’s Bloomin’ Onion

Employees at Outback Steakhouse do say that everything there is delicious and cooked to order, although their Outback Special sirloin is usually a cheaper cut of meat and has a high profit margin. However, it seems their signature appetizer, the Bloomin’ Onion, hides a dark secret. Here’s what one former employee, redditor Hurrayforzac, had to say about it:

Every night, we drain and filter the French fry oil, and put in a chunk of new shortening. The old French fry oil gets filtered in this weird box on wheels and drained into the appetizer deep-vat fryer (shrimp, and I think mushrooms).

The oil form the appetizer fryer is filtered in the box and then dumped into the 2nd appetizer fryer (for chicken tenders, etc.). The old oil form the 2nd appetizer fryer (the third fryer in the line) gets filtered and dumped into the fourth and final fryer, which is used exclusively for Bloomin' Onions.

So basically the oil used to make the trademark appetizer at Outback is cooked in 4 day old, 4 times filtered shortening. the same oil used to make French fries, then coconut shrimp, then chicken tenders, all finally getting infused into the thick eggy batter that encases that husk of a vegetable. Don't eat those.

9. KFC’s Shredded Chicken Snackers

When the fried or grilled chicken has been sat for too long in the heating bays, it cannot be sold to customers, but it can be repurposed. By taking the dry chicken and adding a sauce to it (honey BBQ or buffalo) it can be given a new life as a KFC Snacker. Now, personally I don’t mind the idea of finding ways to save food, especially with so many people going hungry. But if the idea of old, dry chicken being sold as “fresh” makes you angry, you should probably steer clear of this one.

10. Ice From the Soda Fountains

As I’ve written in the past, you should probably avoid soda if you want to save money and your health. But for those who do indulge, or who like a cup of ice water, think twice about getting it from the soda fountain. It appears that many employees know just how difficult it is to clean inside of the ice machines. And because “what the eye doesn’t see, the chef gets away with” is par for the course in many fast food restaurants, the inside of these machines are last on the priority list when it comes to cleaning.

Those are the top 10 I found, but I’d like to throw this one out to current (or former) fast food employees. Is there something you’d add to the list?

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Guest's picture
Emily

Pssst...Wendy's chili is made with day-old burgers. No "probably" or "maybe" about it. But even as a former employee, it's about the only thing I buy from there. I appreciate the frugality of it.

What I wouldn't eat? Eggs from any fast food joint. They're from a milk carton (the infamous "breakers", which are already pretty scary), they cook them and hold them in a steam cabinet for disturbing amounts of time, and I've seen them turn grey and still be served. Ick, ick, ick!!!

Guest's picture
Guest

I work at Wendy's as a Grill Cook/Operator, and I can say that I never let the chili meat sit in the warming drawer for longer than one hour. I know it's fast food, but damned if I'm gonna end up making someone sick and possibly losing my job. Jobs are too hard to find, these days.. Now, the other grill cooks on the other hand: I can't guarantee a thing.

Guest's picture
Beth

I have worked in the food industry and also have a few close friends/family members that work at some places you mentioned. Any time you eat in a restaurant, your rolling the dice really, because you can't see your food being prepared and the quality of your food is reliant on the person preparing it. (Ever see the movie "Waiting"?)

Most fast food restaurants do not use mechanically separated meat in their nuggets, and when mechanically separated meat is used it must be listed as such. Most nuggets with mechanically separated meat comes in the form of the nuggets you buy at the grocery store to prepare at home. Plus...it IS just chicken, as revolting as some people may find the process.

Wendy's does use leftover hamburgers in their chili, but the hamburgers should not have sat out all day according to Wendy's guidelines and food service guidelines.

From my own experience at jobs in my 20's, your dead on with the ice from soda fountains. Although I have never seen anything but clean ice go in to them, I never saw them cleaned either. I don't really clean my ice trays at home all that often, but in this case you have to trust the employee, and I tend to not in that situation.

Guest's picture
brianna

the danger there is black mold/mildew inside the dispenser. if you ever see any black specks in your ice or drink, show the manager and request that the machine be cleaned.

Guest's picture
Guest

Just wanted to throw in here, the blooming onion using 4-day old oil isn't bad at all. There are some restaurants that use far older oil.

There is one restaurant that has been continually recycling it's oil for over 100 years and they claim it is what gives their food it's unique flavor. It's been featured on the food network and cooking channel because their food is that amazing. So 4 day old oil? No big deal and no great worry.

Blooming onions are still awesome.

Guest's picture
Becca

I’ve been working at Outback for the past 5 years and the rule on fryers has changed a lot. The cleanser machine thingy cleans the oil only one time and it gets dumped out and new one gets put in a day later so it’s not sitting in 4 day old oil!

Guest's picture

Wow I will never eat a Bloomin' Onion again. This article is fantastic fo the wallet and waistline.

Guest's picture

I'm always particularly suspicious of how some of these places make burritos. I envision someone in the back room dumping piles of leftover food directly from customers' plates into the burrito of the next customer to be served. That essentially what a burrito's ingredients consist of.

Guest's picture
James

Geez.. I love chicken nuggets.. I'll still order them anyway.. ;)

Guest's picture
Guest

Not sure what's wrong with the Bloomin Onions. I reuse the oil in my deep frier at home at least 4 times and store it for far longer than 4 days. It's not like anything can grow in it... the oil heats up above 350ºF. Enough to vaporize every bacteria, virus, or fungus that could possibly be transmitted to it from the food. The only things that can go wrong with reusing oil are that it 1) burns, or 2) goes rancid. But burning can be prevented with good filtration and a high smoke-point oil, and it takes a lot longer than 4 days for oil to go rancid. Good for them for practicing responsible recycling!

Guest's picture
Guest

Like the others, I don't see anything wrong with 4 day old oil. I use my oil many times, and like someone mentioned, there are places that boast their oil is 100 years old.

Guest's picture
Matt Wiliams

As far as the old cooking oil goes, you are all completely missing the point. At home, you use that oil at most once a day, although I suspect you have a pretty unhealthy diet if you are. In a restaurant or fast food chain, they are using the fryer constantly! At the end of a 24 hour shift, the oil is way past spent. Look at any Kitchen Nightmares show and you'll see one of the first things he does is look at the freshness of the oil. You can taste old oil, especially as it has had so many other things put in it. Crumbs get burned and leave a bad flavor. As a line cook, I can tell you that oil should be changed daily.

Guest's picture
Guest

Be careful of slush machines at convenience stores. They don't always get cleaned properly, and you can get protein in the form of bugs in your slush.
I used to clean the floors, and stock shelves at one in the country. I wasn't allowed to clean the machine. I think it wasn't cleaned but around once a year.

Guest's picture
Guest

I used to work in a large university cafeteria. We also filtered oil but only from a first frier to a second before it was dumped into a giant bin as used up. The second frier was always used for onion rings, the first one was never used for onion rings because we were told they affected the flavor. Probably smart to cook the blooming onion last.

Guest's picture

Ew, some of these sound gross. I've heard that the Bloomin' Onion is the most high calorie and high fat item on any menu of any restaurant (fast food or not) and now I know part of the reason why. I love how employees of these places tell their little secrets to help other people out. The only food establishment I've ever worked at was a small breakfast place in my hometown, and the only thing I learned from working there is that not everyone knows how to wash dishes properly!

Guest's picture
lance

I've got to really argue the sweet tea post, it is urban myth at best. Real granulated sugar (right now, cheaper per ounce commercially than HFCS) is 15-calories per teaspoon. That makes a cup of it worth 720-calories. More than 2-cups per gallon of tea, and it gets 'unbearable sweet' to the taste. So, 720 x 2 = 1440 calories per gallon of sweet tea, or 11.25 calories per ounce. That makes a 12 ounce cup of sweet tea have about 135 calories. Definitely not 'diet', but not as high of calorie count as most any name-brand soda, either. FYI, HFCS drinks tend to have a higher calorie count per equal serving to a sucrose-based drink.

On that idea, the whole 'sweetener issue should have made this list...but didn't. HFCS is far worse for you than granulated sugar, anyways. The next time wants to argue 'they are the same', ask them why HFCS can and does cause cirrhosis of the liver, like alcoholism does, yet consumption of granulated sugar does not. Hint- like alcohol, one is derrived from corn.