Putting an end to a sizzling controversy, McDonald's and Wendy's fast-food chains on Monday announced plans to cook their french fries in cholesterol-free vegetable oil rather than an animal fat and oil blend.
Last Tuesday, Burger King announced the same thing, citing customer demand for food without cholesterol. Numerous studies in recent years have found that a diet filled with foods high in saturated fat can raise a person's cholesterol level and increase the risk of heart disease.
Nutrition experts and consumer advocates praised the move by the three large restaurant chains, but added that many cholesterol-rich items remain on the menus.
"The best french fries in the world have just gotten better," said Ed Rensi, president of McDonald's U.S.A., a subsidiary of McDonald's Corp. of Oak Brook, Ill. A small order of McDonald's french fries fried in vegetable oil rather than in a mixture of beef tallow and vegetable shortening is lower in saturated fat than a glass of 2% low-fat milk, Rensi said in a statement.
McDonald's said it also will fry hash browns in vegetable oil.
Wendy's International of Dublin, Ohio, revealed Monday that it will introduce a new grilled chicken sandwich made with a skinless, boneless breast of chicken.
Burger King, with 6,000 restaurants worldwide, and Wendy's, with 3,800 restaurants, expect to complete the roll-out of the cholesterol-free fries by this fall. McDonald's, which has more than 11,300 restaurants in 52 countries, said it will make the switch at more than 8,300 company-owned and franchised restaurants in the United States by the end of the year.
Fast-food chains have been criticized for serving foods high in fat and cholesterol. One of the most visible critics has been Nebraska businessman Phil Sokolof, who has run many full-page newspaper ads attacking the chains, particularly McDonald's. A recent survey by the Gallup Organization for Advertising Age magazine found that 38% of 1,000 people polled said they had cut back on visits to fast-food restaurants because of the controversy about fat.
McDonald's had resisted changing to all-vegetable-oil cooking for its fries because the company said the taste would be altered. But after eight years of research and consumer testing, McDonald's developed a way of preserving the taste, spokeswoman Melissa Oakley said.
"I'm elated," said Sokolof, who suffered a heart attack more than 20 years ago and went on to found an organization he calls National Heart Savers Assn. "I'm happy for the American people because millions of ounces of saturated fat won't be clogging their arteries," said the millionaire, who now boasts of a cholesterol level of 150. (An overall cholesterol level of 200 or lower is considered desirable.)
But much remains to be done, said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.
"When McDonald's makes a change, it has a huge impact on how America eats, so this change is a lifesaving one because heart disease is the No. 1 killer in this country," Liebman said.