Scientific illiteracy in ‘Shake it Up’

David Potts

I read the March 13 article “Shake it up” in the A&E food section recently, and I found it both misleading and full of fear-mongering. Now mind you, I do not frequent McDonald’s regularly. Yes the Shamrock Shake is well advertised, and yes, it has a lot of ingredients, but the bottom line is that people are willing to buy it and enjoy it, so there is market potential there. Of course McDonald’s is going to sell it if the demand is there. Don’t get me wrong; there are definitely healthier options, but pointing to those specific ingredients as reasons for the Shamrock Shake being “toxic” is ridiculous. The Shamrock Shake is not toxic.

Maybe the article was going for hyperbole for effect, but public perception of these ingredients as intrinsically harmful is scientifically inaccurate. Other recent media outlets have pointed to there being yoga mats in bread just because the two share one compound in common. That is inaccurate. Your body contains water, but you would never say that you have an ocean in your body. It all depends on the scale you are talking about, and the levels that these ingredients are included should be within the limits set by the Food and Drug Administration and based on scientific studies.

Regarding several other points the article makes: Emulsifiers do not mean that a product is unhealthy. Emulsifiers allow two liquids (e.g., oil and water) to be able to mix together and be stable without undesirable separation. If you want your salad dressings or mayonnaise to separate, then by all means, avoid emulsifiers.

Second, while there is no “mint” listed in the ingredients section of the Shamrock Shake, they do list “natural flavor (plant source),” so they may in fact incorporate mint, as well as other natural plant-based flavors that give the Shamrock Shake its taste.

The article states that it’s topped with “artificial ‘whipped cream’ and nitrous oxide.” The nitrous oxide is incorporated in this and other food products that need to be propelled. The nitrous oxide is dissolved in the fat, and upon reaching the atmosphere, it becomes gaseous and leaves. So suggesting that you are directly eating nitrous oxide is wrong, and it’s likely in the same aerosol whipped cream that you use at home; it’s not unique to McDonald’s.

Third, “preservative-soaked cherry” is also exaggerated. The fact that the preservatives are listed last in the ingredients list means that they are the least present within the formulation, and all of these should fall within the limits set by the FDA.

Finally, the article suggests making your own version at home with mint ice cream, whole milk and vanilla extract. The mint ice cream you buy likely has exactly the same types of ingredients as the Shamrock Shake. It, too, will have added sugar, emulsifiers, stabilizers, preservatives, etc. If you are worried about these in the Shamrock Shake, then why is it OK to eat them in your ice cream?

Finally, I am not suggesting that one should go out and buy an extra-large Shamrock Shake every day while they are available. People have varied tastes and opinions, which they are entitled to. I just wanted to set the record straight on the science behind these ingredients. Companies are looking for better and cleaner labels, especially since consumers care about those more than ever these days. This is a good thing, and it often makes formulas healthier in terms of ridding them of added sugars, fats, etc. However, blatant scientific illiteracy and ignorance never solves the problem.


The author is a University Ph.D. student studying food science and nutrition.