May 06 2014

Ammonia in burgers – a Storm in a Bun

Category: GeneralDave @ 10:47

I recently saw a Facebook post which contained a link to an FB page called “The Mind Unleashed“. I haven’t actually looked at the page itself as this image from it was more than enough:

Anti-MacDonalds poster

Later in the same post, there was a reference to “Hamburger Chef Jamie Oliver Proves McDonalds Meat has Ammonium Hydroxide”

First of all, Jamie Oliver is not a “Hamburger Chef”!!

All in all, this is another example of taking the facts and then bending them to fit your agenda. The news is about four years old, so why resurrect it now? It applies only to the US (YMMV in other countries) and the correct figure was 15%, not 85%, for two reasons: a) the FDA only allows 15% (but of course, that may not have been being enforced) but, more importantly, b) if it had been 85% it would have been really, really obvious! And… the burgers would have been obnoxious. 85% pink slime – think about it 🙂

Now for the usual links to cancer.

Ammonium hydroxide is simply ammonia dissolved in water. It is, for all practical purposes here, the same thing. perhaps they use the long name as it sounds more frightening. Most people are familiar with ammonia – it’s used in all sorts of household cleaners – but would probably not be so sure about ammonium hydroxide.

That some meat is processed using ammonia is unquestioned. It’s used basically to kill bacteria. So, one has to ask this: if MacDonalds et al have stopped using ammonia for this, what are they now using instead? And is the replacement substance dangerous? They are. allegedly, no longer using pink slime but there is no guarantee they don’t use it to treat other meat.

Ammonia boils at around 33C, so cooking the meat will drive virtually all of it off. Some of the remainder (if any) will be leached away by the fluids that run out/boil out of the meat during cooking. So:

  • What concentration actually remains in a cooked burger?
  • Is what remains actually a problem?
  • Does a cooked burger actually have *any* NH3 still in it? I doubt it but would like to see the results of independent tests.

And if there was a tiny amount remaining in the meat…

Below a certain concentration, ingested ammonia would be neutralised instantly by the hydrochloric acid in your stomach (NH3 + HCl -> NH3Cl). and would produce ammonium chloride. Ammonium chloride in small amounts is harmless and is used in a number of foods & drinks… and not just by big corporations: sal ammoniac (an old name for it) is used in some traditional Indian cookery. Your stomach contains between 20 and 100ml of quite strong hydrochloric acid, so you’d have to drink that much strong ammonia solution *just to neutralise that acid* before ammonia could have any effect whatsoever.

And so, the claim that ammonia in burgers causes stomach or intestinal cancer strikes me as bullshit: you’d have to consume so much actual ammonia that you’d burn out your gullet first. OK, so maybe several thousand burgers a week would do it…

My gut reaction (sorry) is that “pink slime” was and is a Bad Idea, although I don’t know of any proper studies that show it to be a health hazard. However, using pseudo-science to fight corporate greed is a bad idea: once the nonsense is exposed, it backfires and will tar a whole campaign as being nonsense. The truth is powerful enough and doesn’t need that kind of “help”. Stick to the facts and you can’t be called out on them.

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