McDonald's French Fries Are Still Not Vegetarian

Why McDonald's fries are meat-free in India but not in the U.S.

McDonald's fries
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Most animal-rights activists follow a plant-based diet for ethical reasons and studiously avoid places where meat makes up the bulk of the menu. Still, vegetarians or vegans occasionally find themselves inclined to sneak into McDonald's for a serving of the famous Golden Arches French fries every now and then. But if they're serious about living meat-free, they should stop. In spite of numerous protests—and even lawsuits—McDonald's fries are not, and never have been, vegan or vegetarian. "But how can that be?" you may ask. "French fries are made from potatoes and fried in oil, so where's the harm?" (Hint: It's in the oil.)

McDonald's Fries in India vs. the U.S.

In India, cows are sacred and are not meant for human consumption. Fortunately, in that country, vegetarians can consume all the McDonald's French fries their hearts desire because they're made of strictly plant-based ingredients. In fact, in India, McDonald's locations do not serve pork or beef products at all.

But French fries served at American McDonald’s locations are not vegetarian. Why not, you ask?

For decades, McDonald’s fries were cooked in animal fat (lard) which was supposedly what gave them their famous flavor. Eventually, the chain switched to vegetable oil, but customers complained that the fries were no longer as tasty. The company's solution was to add natural beef flavor to the spuds during the production cycle.

What's Your Beef? A Class-Action Lawsuit

In 2001, McDonald’s was hit with a class-action lawsuit, led by a group of Hindu customers who felt they were being duped into unwittingly consuming animal products—which is strictly against their religion. Other vegetarians and vegans joined the fight, pointing out that the company was disseminating misleading information.

Customers were being told that the French fries were fried in vegetable oil—the inference being that the fries were no longer cooked in lard and were therefore veg-friendly. Admitting that the fries were coated in beef flavoring, McDonald's settled for $10 million, with $6 million going to vegetarian organizations.

But they didn’t change their recipe. In fact, their website still lists the ingredients, including beef, for all to see.

As a company spokesperson explained: “With regard to our French fries, any customer in the U.S. who contacts McDonald's USA to ask if they contain beef flavoring is told, 'Yes.'" The same McDonald's representative went on to say, "We have no plans to change the way we prepare our French fries in the U.S. However, it is important to know that our French fries are prepared differently in other countries.”

How the Beef Gets in the Fries

In the U.S, McDonald's French fry suppliers add a very small amount of beef flavor to the oil in the par-frying process at the potato processing plant before shipping the fries to individual outlets. Once at the restaurant, the spuds are cooked in vegetable oil. For vegans and vegetarians, this extra step a deal-breaker.

How difficult would it be to omit the meat? Probably not that difficult at all, however, the impact on the bottom line could potentially be enormous.

In India, where the majority of customers are vegetarian or vegan, not accommodating meat-free food choices doesn't make sense from an economic standpoint. In the United States, however, the opposite is true. If McDonald's started leaving out the signature ingredient that's long given their fries their famous flavor, if you asked Americans, "Do you want fries with that?" the answer could very well be, "No!"