Fast-food French Fries Ahead of the Game in Impending FDA Trans Fat Ban

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary source of artificial trans fats in Americans’ diets, are not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food. This determination has led to plans by the FDA to label PHOs as “food additives,” which may not be used in food unless authorized by regulation. While FDA’s plans are bound to have a measurable effect on companies whose products rely heavily on PHOs, many big names in fast-food have already made the switch. A survey of the history of McDonald’s French fries offers some perspective on the ongoing tug-of-war between the public’s health and its craving for crisp, golden fries.

According to National Public Radio, in the 1950s, while most of its competitors used partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to make French fries, McDonald’s was using a blend of oil and beef fat to fry its potatoes, as its shortening supplier was too small of a company to afford the expensive equipment used for hydrogenation. McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc believed that the shortening blend containing beef fat produced a flavorful and crisp fry superior to those cooked in all-vegetable shortening. The public agreed, and the beef-fat flavor of McDonald’s fries became the standard in the blossoming fast-food industry.

However, in the late 1980s, fast-food companies faced pressure to switch to pure vegetable oil. The public harbored a growing concern that the saturated fat in beef tallow used to produce the much-loved French fries could raise cholesterol in those who consumed them. In the switch to vegetable oil, the industry adopted the process of adding hydrogen into its fry oil to extend its life. And, in time, fast-food consumers grew to love the “hydro flavor” that McDonald’s identified in its flavor profile.

While the fast-food industry had the public’s health in mind when making the switch to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, little was known then about the dangers of PHOs, which “increase the shelf life of foods but decrease the shelf life of humans,” says Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. It is true that the saturated fat in the tallow used to cook fries could raise cholesterol—but the artificial trans fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil raised bad cholesterol levels and lowered good cholesterol, making it potentially worse than the saturated fat. The trans fats in PHOs are also known to contribute to diabetes. Now, it is estimated that between 72,000 and 228,000 heart disease incidents per year are caused by the consumption of trans fats.

In 2008, McDonald’s switched to a canola blend oil, eliminating trans fats from its menu items. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, most major fast-food restaurants such as Taco Bell, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken have also made efforts to reduce or remove trans fats from its offerings, though some, such as Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, and Popeyes still offer foods containing some PHOs.