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Trekking Through the Ingredients in Arby’s Meat Mountain

All 120-ish ingredients in this flesh pile, explained (yep, even sodium aluminum sulfate)

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on, or near) themselves.

This edition: Arby’s Meat Mountain, which is made from somewhere around 120 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down as they appear on a couple separate parts of the Arby’s website.

The Star-Cut Bun

1) Enriched Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid): As we learned in our exploration of the many, many, many ingredients in the McDonald’s Big Mac — but somehow still not as many as in Arby’s Meat Mountain — enriched flour can end up being far less “enriched” than the name would have you believe. In addition to containing more calories than whole wheat flour, the bleaching process enriched flour often undergoes produces an unfortunate byproduct: A chemical called alloxan, which has been found to induce diabetes in lab-animal test subjects by destroying their pancreas. Whether or not that applies to this enriched flour is hard to say.

2) Water: Together, water and flour make dough.

3) Sugar: Arby’s hasn’t officially disclosed the full nutritional breakdown of their Meat Mountain, but unconfirmed estimates guess that the sandwich has a total of six grams of sugar, which is nothing compared to its 3,536 milligrams of sodium or 1,275 calories. For reference, the American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 36 grams and women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day.

4) Palm Oil: This helps trap air bubbles, giving baked goods a delicate texture, and retains moisture. While that makes these buns nice to eat, according to physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, consuming too much vegetable oil — which is easy to do, considering Shanahan says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions (e.g., fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines). Plus, palm oil is awful for the environment.

5) Yeast: The fungus that makes dough rise.

6) Salt: To enhance the flavor. As I already touched on, Arby’s Meat Mountain is a sodium explosion — its estimated 3,536 milligrams of sodium is about 1,000 milligrams more than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming per day. Good luck to your heart if you eat one of these.

7) Dough Conditioner (Wheat Flour, Wheat Gluten, Hydrolyzed Wheat Gluten, Enzyme, Ascorbic Acid): These are mostly harmless ingredients added to improve the bun’s chewiness and flavor. Ascorbic acid, for instance, is just vitamin C, which accelerates the rising of the dough, and enzymes are standard in dough making. Hydrolyzed wheat gluten is a flavor enhancer produced by boiling wheat in hydrochloric acid, then neutralizing the solution with sodium hydroxide. The result is pure amino acids, which are often used to give processed foods a fuller flavor, similar to the way MSG is used.

The only people who really need to worry about these ingredients are those with celiac disease: Wheat gluten is wheat flour that’s been hydrated to activate the gluten, then processed to remove everything but the gluten.

8) Calcium Propionate: Calcium propionate is an antifungal added to many bread products to prevent mold growth. In addition to being linked to migraines, a 2002 study in the Journal of Paediatric Child Health found that chronic exposure to calcium propionate in children caused irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance. So, maybe the Meat Mountain should be an adults-only sandwich.

9) Dry Malt: Malt has a sweetening effect on bread.

10) Dough Strengthener (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate): This ingredient is commonly incorporated in baked goods to strengthen dough, mix liquids and oils together and replace some fat and sugar. While it’s considered to be safe by the FDA, some people may experience an allergic reaction to the ingredient that consists of itching, swelling, mucus production, muscle spasms, hives and rash formation.

11) Dough Conditioner (Calcium Sulfate, Wheat Starch, Wheat Flour, Enzymes [Wheat], Salt): The only new ingredient here is calcium sulfate, added to stabilize foods and regulate their acidity levels. It can also be used as a flour treatment agent to increase the speed of dough rising and to improve the strength and workability of the dough. In the amounts typically found in food, calcium sulfate isn’t likely to cause adverse effects and is generally regarded as safe by the FDA.

12) Ascorbic Acid: Again, this is just another name for vitamin C.

13) Artificial Color (Water, Propylene Glycol, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40): Propylene glycol is often used to improve the appearance of foods, and it’s generally recognized as safe. As for the artificial colors, Shanahan explained during my analysis of Doritos that studies claiming they’re carcinogenic often use unreasonable amounts of artificial colors in their experimentation, so don’t worry too much about them.

14) Citric Acid: Citric acid is a sour flavoring agent derived from citrus. It’s also a mild preservative.

15) Sodium Benzoate: Another preservative, sodium benzoate has been shown to exacerbate hyperactive behavior in young children, which is just another reason to keep kids away from Meat Mountains.

16) Propylparaben: Yet another preservative, propylparaben — and other parabens — are associated with some serious problems. Some studies suggest that parabens can have a negative effect on reproduction, and the scientific community has gone back and forth on whether or not parabens are carcinogenic. In 2004, molecular biologist Philippa Darbre found small concentrations of parabens in breast cancer cells, which raised concerns about their use in many products. Subsequent studies exploring this connection, however, deemed parabens to be non-carcinogenic. Subsequent studies to those studies found parabens to be (you guessed it) carcinogenic. However, because propylparaben doesn’t seem to accumulate in the body, the FDA generally recognizes it as safe. 

17) Caramel Color: Caramel color is what makes these buns so brown. Unfortunately, as we discovered in our exploration of the ingredients that make up Diet Coke, caramel coloring has an incredibly controversial byproduct called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). A 2007 study found that mice fed a diet of 4-MEI developed cancerous lung tumors as a result. The FDA quickly pushed back, noting that a human would have to consume more than 1,000 cans of soft drinks (which are notoriously high in caramel coloring) every day for two years to reach comparable levels of 4-MEI.

Who’s right is still unclear. More recent studies argue that levels of 4-MEI are, in fact, high enough in soda (and possibly other foods) and consumed in sufficient quantities by Americans to increase the risk of developing cancer. Even more recent studies say that caramel coloring is just fine. Do you really have to worry about this in your Meat Mountain? I’d be more concerned about all that meat and salt.

18) Shine Agent (Modified Starch, Sodium Alginate, Mono-Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin, Polysorbate 60): Going one by one, modified starch is treated physically, enzymatically or chemically to partially break down the starch. It can be used as a stabilizer, thickening agent or an emulsifier —  that means it helps the numerous ingredients in these buns mix together.

Sodium alginate is extracted from seaweed and is often used as a hydration agent in breads, keeping them moist.

Mono-diglycerides, meanwhile, are typically added to food products as an emulsifier. But as I learned in my exploration of all 39 ingredients in the Dodger Dog, mono and diglycerides are oftentimes packed with trans fats that aren’t listed on the nutrition facts label, which is incredibly problematic. That’s because trans fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and consuming more than you think you are (because they weren’t listed on the label) could do serious damage to your body.

Soy lecithin is a component of fat found in — you guessed it — soy. It works as an emulsifier, again helping the many ingredients in these buns mix together.

Finally, polysorbate 60, another emulsifier, can cause organ toxicity and cancer in high doses, according to several studies. However, the FDA classifies it as safe for limited use in food.

The Prime-Cut Chicken Tenders

1) Chicken Breast Tenderloins: While I can’t speak for certain to the quality of Arby’s meat, it’s sourced from a wide variety of locations and, despite the rumors, does not arrive at their stores as “liquid meat.”

2) Water: To keep it juicy.

3) Seasoning (Salt, Hydrolyzed Corn and Soy Protein, Flavor, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate, Enzyme Modified Egg Yolk, Thiamine Hydrochloride): Starting with hydrolyzed corn and soy protein, this ingredient is similar to hydrolyzed wheat gluten in that it’s a flavor enhancer and goes through the same processes.

Autolyzed yeast extract results when yeast is broken down into its individual components, which include the flavor enhancer MSG (more on that here). Because MSG is a natural component of autolyzed yeast, it doesn’t have to be listed separately on the ingredients lists — so watch out for this ingredient if you’re sensitive to MSG.

Used in conjunction with MSG and disodium inosinate (see below), disodium guanylate has a savory taste that essentially allows manufacturers to increase the flavor of food without loading it with sodium (although as we’ve noted, they did that anyway). The risk of consuming too much of this stuff is more or less the same as MSG — i.e., headaches and nausea. That said, Shanahan previously told us there’s no reason to worry about these flavor enhancers as long as you consume them alongside some kind of protein — like, say, a slab of turkey — to quell those negative effects. And what do you know? The Meat Mountain has a slab of turkey on it!

Next up: Disodium inosinate, a savory flavor enhancer that’s almost always used in conjunction with MSG and disodium guanylate. It’s a purine, meaning it’s one of the building blocks of DNA, and thus, it’s often derived from animal origin like beef, pork, poultry and fish. So if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, be sure to avoid products containing disodium inosinate — and definitely be sure to avoid Meat Mountains.

Enzyme-modified eggs, meanwhile, are typically easier to emulsify, which is probably helpful for the batter on these chicken tenders.

Finally, thiamine hydrochloride is a form of vitamin B1 that can be used to enhance flavors.

4) Sodium Phosphate: Sodium phosphate is a generic term that may refer to any sodium salt combined with phosphoric acid. They’re usually added as texturizers and emulsifiers, which allows for the uniform dispersion of numerous ingredients. One study suggests phosphate additives contribute to the prevalence of chronic kidney disease, and the FDA even issued a safety warning concerning the use of over-the-counter sodium phosphate products to treat constipation. All in all, this is an ingredient to be wary of.

Battered and Breaded With… 

5) Bleached Wheat Flour: Remember, bleached equals bad.

6) Water: More H2O.

7) Wheat Flour: For breading. 

8) Salt: Yep, more salt.

9) Spice: What these spices are remains a mystery, because as we learned in our exploration of the ingredients in nacho-flavored Doritos, the FDA doesn’t require food labelers to list each spice by its specific name (as a means of protecting their recipes) so long as it follows their definition of the word “spice”: “The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.”

10) Disodium Inosinate: See above.

11) Disodium Guanylate: See above.

12) Yeast Extract: This adds an umami taste.

13) Leavening (Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Aluminum Sulfate): Also known as baking soda, sodium bicarbonate produces carbon dioxide, which helps the dough — or breading, in this case — rise. Sodium aluminum sulfate reacts with sodium bicarbonate to help produce that carbon dioxide.

14) Garlic Powder: Just dehydrated, ground garlic.

15) Yellow Corn Flour: Another flour for breading.

16) Dextrose: Dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like corn. Fun fact: Dextrose has a high glycemic index, meaning it quickly raises the blood sugar levels, so it’s used in IV solutions to treat low blood sugar and dehydration. People with diabetes might also consume dextrose tablets to raise their blood sugar levels if they become dangerously low. Because of this blood-sugar-boosting effect, consuming dextrose also provides an almost immediate jolt of energy — followed by an inevitable crash.

17) Onion Powder: Dehydrated, ground onion.

18) Extractives of Paprika and Turmeric: These are mostly for color, giving the tenders an attractive golden-brown appearance.

The Roast Turkey

1) Turkey Breast: The breast is one of the healthiest parts of the turkey, though that probably doesn’t make much of a difference when you’re chowing on a Meat Mountain. 

2) Turkey Broth: Made by simmering the turkey carcass with other flavorful ingredients, this ups the flavor.

3) Salt: More salt.

4) Brown Sugar: Brown sugar is brown because it contains molasses. It has slightly more minerals than white sugar, but should still be limited.

5) Modified Food Starch: See above. 

6) Dextrose: See above. 

7) Sodium Phosphate: See above.

The Pit-Smoked Ham

1) Ham: From pigs.

2) Water: You like your ham wet, right?

3) Dextrose: See above.

4) Salt: Ugh.

5) Sodium Phosphates: See above.

6) Potassium Acetate: Used in processed foods as a preservative and acidity regulator, potassium acetate is considered safe when used in accordance with FDA regulations.

7) Potassium Lactate: Potassium lactate is salt derived from lactic acid, and it’s typically added to foods as a flavor agent and enhancer. It may also be added as a humectant, meaning it helps foods retain water and keeps them moist longer. Interestingly enough, potassium lactate is used in fire extinguishers as well, since it has fire-suppressant properties. While this may seem unnatural (and unhealthy), the FDA claims that potassium lactate is generally recognized as safe when added to foods at normal levels.

8) Sodium Diacetate: Sodium diacetate is an acidic sodium salt widely used as a preservative to control the growth of mold and bacteria in food. It’s also commonly added to meat and poultry as a pH regulator.

9) Sodium Erythorbate: This ingredient is a synthetic variation of ascorbic acid, which, again, is just a fancy name for vitamin C. It’s used to prevent microbial growth and to preserve freshness. While sodium erythorbate is generally considered to be safe, you may experience headaches, dizziness, fatigue and lethargy if you’re sensitive to it.

10) Sodium Nitrite: “Sodium nitrite stabilizes the red color in cured meats, which prevents the meat from naturally turning gray,” Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, told me during our analysis of the ingredients in frozen breakfast sandwiches. “Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of nitrosamines (a carcinogen).” Great!

The Corned Beef

1) Beef: From cows.

2) Water: Moist. Beef.

3) Sodium Lactate: Sodium lactate is naturally derived from the fermentation of lactic acid (a compound produced when glucose is broken down and oxidized), and it’s usually added to meat and poultry products because the salt acts as a preservative, preventing bacteria and fungi from growing. Medicinally, sodium lactate can also be intravenously injected to remove drugs from the body after an overdose.

4) Salt: How much flavor can one person handle!

5) Flavorings: Because of FDA regulations, Arby’s doesn’t actually have to disclose what exactly these flavors are.

6) Sugar: This helps with caramelization.

7) Sodium Chloride: Sodium chloride is the chemical name for salt, which we know is bountiful in this Meat Mountain.

8) Potassium Chloride: Potassium chloride is added to food for two reasons: 1) To act as a salt substitute; and 2) to enhance the amount of potassium an essential and widely under-consumed nutrient — found in the product. While small amounts — like that found in this Mountain — shouldn’t do you any harm, nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, previously told me that consuming too much of the stuff is a bad idea. “Potassium chloride is used to induce cardiac arrest during executions by lethal injections,” he says. “That should speak volumes as to whether this ingredient belongs in our food supply.” 

Xavier also told me that you shouldn’t worry too much, though: “Potassium Chloride has a very bitter taste, and therefore, overuse is unlikely within our food supply.”

9) Sodium Gluconate: This ingredient functions as both a preservative and a chelating agent (a substance that prevents deterioration during processing and storage by binding the minerals within the product).

10) Sodium Phosphates: See above.

11) Sodium Nitrite: See above.

12) Sodium Erythorbate: See above.

The 13-Hour Smoked Brisket

1) Beef Brisket: More cows!

2) Water: It’s extra juicy.

3) Salt: Fuck.

4) Sodium Phosphates: See above.

5) Black Pepper: For some spice.

6) Paprika: This provides a bit of heat.

7) Red Pepper: Another touch of heat.

8) Garlic Blend (Salt, Corn Starch, Garlic Powder): The only new ingredient here is corn starch, which essentially just adds bulk and helps the blend stick to the meat.

The USDA-Choice Angus Steak

1) Black Angus Beef: The sheer number of cows in this one sandwich is horrifying.

2) Water: I guess you won’t need a drink with your Meat Mountain.

3) Sea Salt: From the sea.

4) Raw Sugar: Raw sugar really isn’t much different from refined sugar, however, it may retain some more minerals.

5) Sodium Phosphate: See above.

6) Yeast Extract: See above.

Coated With… 

7) Black Pepper: See above.

8) Caramel Color: See above.

9) Salt: Pls stop.

10) Dextrose: See above.

11) Onion Powder: See above.

12) Spices: See above.

13) Garlic Powder: See above.

14) Citric Acid: See above. 

15) Hydrolyzed Soy Protein: See above. 

16) Spice Extractives: These are just concentrated versions of whatever spices they’re using.

The Roast Beef

1) Beef: Those poor, poor cows.

2) Water: There it is again.

3) Salt: I have no words.

4) Sodium Phosphates: See above.

The Pepper Bacon

1) Pork: Another pig.

2) Water: Those buns are gonna be soggy as hell.

4) Salt:  

5) Sugar: For sweetness.

6) Smoke Flavoring: The traditional way to achieve smoke flavoring is to burn wood at high temperatures, and the resulting smoke particles are collected in condensers. That liquid is then concentrated, creating a strong, smoky flavor

7) Sodium Phosphate: See above.

8) Sodium Erythorbate: See above.

9) Sodium Nitrite: See above.

Coated with Ground Black Pepper and Sugar… 

The Cheddar Cheese

1) Cultured Pasteurized Milk: Milk that’s been heated to kill pathogens.

2) Salt: It never ends!

3) Enzymes: Enzymes help cheese curdle.

4) Annatto Color: Derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, annatto is an orange-red food coloring.

The Swiss Cheese

Note that Arby’s offers “natural” and “processed” Swiss cheese slices, but they don’t say which one is on the Meat Mountain, so I’m going to assume it’s the processed slice.

1) Cultured Milk: Milk is cultured by adding the lactic acid bacteria Streptococcus lactis, which results in an acidic, zesty and thick milk product — also known as cultured buttermilk.

2) Skim Milk: Milk without fat.

3) Water: Water also falls from the sky when it rains.

4) Salt: Enough, I beg of you.

5) Sodium Citrate: Sodium citrate is the sodium salt of citric acid, a mild preservative with a slightly tart flavor. Just like citric acid, sodium citrate is considered to be a safe preservative and can provide a sour taste when added in high amounts.

6) Sodium Phosphate: See above.

7) Cream: Cream is basically the layer of fat that rises to the top of milk before undergoing homogenization, a process that breaks down the fat molecules in milk to prevent them from separating.

8) Citric Acid: See above.

9) Sorbic Acid: Sorbic acid is a preservative used for its antimicrobial properties, and it’s also on the FDA’s list of “generally recognized as safe” substances.

10) Enzymes: See above.

11) Lactic Acid: Lactic acid is a sugar added for acidic flavoring. It’s the main sugar in milk and can also be used to speed up the coagulation process of cheeses.

12) Soy Lecithin: See above.

The Takeaway

We’ve officially gone too far.