An afternoon at a McDonald's kitchen

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Monday 30 June 2008

An afternoon at a McDonald's kitchen

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The fast food industry around the world is bending backwards trying to prove that they are ensuring health to consumers. So I was little surprised when I contacted McDonald's India for a story on the global policy on health, physical activity and diet, and was invited to visit one of their restaurants instead.

McDonald's has an 'open kitchen' policy and promotes guided restaurant tours wherein customers are invited to witness the procedures and standards maintained. The company's pr agency, Corporate Voice | Weber Shandwick, suggested that I visited one of the outlets and saw for myself. But the open kitchen was not so open after all. I was refused the request to come with a photographer. Nonetheless I decided to go with an open mind.

I zeroed in on the outlet at Saket where I had gone a couple of years ago with a colleague's son and a photographer to get some pictures for a story--we pretended to be doting aunties, clicking pictures as he dug in. On the designated day, I reached early but I was expected. A man with a slight air of authority sat in the centre browsing through a pile of ledgers on a table. As I had guessed, he turned out to be the manager, Anshuman Khera. As we chatted about what I planned to write and sundry things, we were joined by Anurag Bhatt and Neha Singhvi of the pr agency, my guides for the day.

Soon we were ready for the tour, donning plastic caps. I was told about the hand washing protocols and a complicated system that ensured the cooked food stayed on the open counter only for the permitted time--after that it went straight into the dustbin. But since we were not discussing the global food crisis, I turned the conversation towards the "healthy" options provided by them.

Low-fat options were available but were not hot favourites. Lean meats, which are high on proteins and low on fat, and heart-friendly fillet-o-fish, waited to be picked up, while trays of high-calorie Shahi Chicken McCurry Pan and McAloo Tikki Burger vanished at the counter. Nearly every customer ordered French fries, which add 367 calories to the meal. This meant most of the things the company had mentioned as examples of their food being healthy were of no help. My guides emphasized that the food itself was not bad and the problem was that people who ate calorie-rich food were not physically active.

I reminded myself of maintaining an open-minded approach and proceeded to ponder over my choices for a meal. Though the McDonald's pamphlet said I could have 1,875 calories in a day, according to Mayo Clinic's calculation, I needed just 1,600 calories. As I am putting on weight, I allow myself around 1,500 calories. But the food was extremely calorie-dense; I could gain that many calories in a single meal. A combo meal of McVeggie burger, medium fries and 600 ml of coke would provide me over 1,000 calories and I would need to use the ketchup sparingly.

Having failed to manage calorie count, I turned towards the ingredients. Unlike in other countries, the company in India does not provide the exact ingredients of its products. What about cooking oil? I was disappointed to learn that they used palm oil. It is considered an inferior oil for cooking and has gained popularity among food manufacturers because it is cheap. It might help the company meet the zero-trans fat standards, but the oil is said to raise risks of heart attack.

According to who, an ideal oil should have essential fatty acids omega 3 and omega 6 in a ratio of 45. Palm oil has 201. To add insult to injury McDonald's uses far healthier canola oil in its Australian outlets.

Palm oil was just one instance of discrimination. Packed salads and cut fruits are missing on McDonald's menus in India, but not in the us and Europe. The company's logic there is no market for salads and fruits in India. Recent reports mentioned that the company would start using free-range eggs--by hens allowed to move freely--in their products. If they are using these in India, they did not mention it to me.

I dropped the idea of a meal and ended the tour with a 240-calorie soft serve, though now I wish I had stuck to tea as my guides had done.

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