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Fast-Food Outlets Try Oil Change : Nutrition: In a nod to consumer health concerns, the three largest chains switch to 100% vegetable oil to reduce cholesterol content of French fries.

THE WASHINGTON POST

The French fries at McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are having an oil change. Three of the nation’s largest fast-food chains have announced that they will stop using beef-tallow and vegetable-oil blends and start using 100% vegetable oil to fry their potatoes. The switch reduces the saturated fat and gets rid of all the cholesterol in the fries.

“Eliminating the beef fat eliminates one of the Achilles’ heels of the fast-food industry,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that has long criticized the nutritional content of fast-food menus. “It’s a key change.”

The elimination of the use of beef fat marks a continuing trend by fast-food companies to offer healthier options--and to compete on that basis.

Practically all the chains now sell pre-packaged salads or offer salad bars; several feature grilled-chicken sandwiches, and a few are selling or test-marketing frozen yogurt. McDonald’s is phasing in 1% low-fat milk and has introduced a nonfat apple bran muffin, Cheerios and Wheaties to its breakfast menu. It is also test-marketing carrot and celery sticks, reduced-oil condiments, pasta dishes and margarine instead of butter for spreading on pancakes and biscuits.

While there are still healthy alternatives that fast-food restaurants haven’t yet explored, Jacobson said, the past five years have been “punctuated with improvements.” The “basic change is that companies now consider nutrition in their decision-making processes,” he said. “They never used to.”

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In its switch to healthier fries, McDonald’s will be using a cottonseed and corn-oil blend, which will reduce the saturated fat by 45%. The new fries will be phased into all of McDonald’s 8,300 domestic outlets by the end of the year.

Wendy’s fries will be made with 100% corn oil; Burger King’s version will use soybean and cottonseed oils. Both chains will offer the reformulated fries by fall.

Still, health and nutrition authorities warned that even with the oil changes, fast-food French fries are far from a health food.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction to switch from saturated fats to less-saturated ones,” said Jayne Newmark, director of nutrition services at the Arizona Heart Institute. “However, I caution people when they’re in a fast-food restaurant that just because a food is prepared with a less-saturated fat does not mean that it is low in fat and low in calories.”

For example, that large order of McDonald’s fries still contains 400 calories and almost 22 grams of total fat. That’s about a third of the total fat consumption recommended for an entire day.

Nevertheless, Newmark added, “if someone wanted to have French fries occasionally, it would be a better choice now. It doesn’t mean I would have them every single day. It just gives them a less-guilty option.”

John LaRosa, chairman of the task force on cholesterol issues for the American Heart Assn. and dean for clinical affairs at George Washington University Medical School, applauded the fast-food industry for “a very important step forward” but added a caveat.

“I guess if you sat down and looked at how much people eat out and what it (changing to 100% vegetable oil for frying French fries) means to total saturated-fat consumption, I don’t think it would be that overwhelming.” LaRosa pointed out that most of the saturated fat in the American diet comes from beef and dairy products, not French fries.

The chains maintain that their decision to switch to all-vegetable oils was made in response to consumer demand, not after pressure from advocacy groups, including CSPI, or from Phil Sokolof, an Omaha businessman and anti-cholesterol crusader who in recent months has placed full-page ads in major newspapers criticizing the fat content of fast-food meals.

While the three chains use 100% vegetable oil for frying chicken and fish, they said the delay in switching from beef fat in French fries was caused by difficulties in achieving a comparable taste.

“Everyone wants a golden-brown French fry, and they want it crispy and hot,” said Denny Lynch, spokesman for Wendy’s International. Lynch said the challenge was to get a blend of vegetable oils that could produce the same characteristics as beef tallow, which absorbs well and adds flavor to fried potatoes. Nevertheless, when Wendy’s first opened 21 years ago, it used 100% vegetable oil for its fries, Lynch said. In the mid-1970s, the company switched to an animal and vegetable fat blend because consumers preferred the taste.

But Hardee’s, which changed to a soybean-peanut oil blend for its French fries in 1988, said the other chains were just making excuses for the delay. “They will tell you it was taste. We will tell you it was cost,” said Jerry Singer, spokesman for Hardee’s. “Vegetable oils cost 30% more than beef-tallow blends. It’s a multimillion-dollar decision.”


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