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Fast-food transformation

When Wendy's, Taco Bell and KFC announced they were switching to new cooking oils free of heart-clogging trans fats, McDonald's Corp. stood by.

Until now.

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After testing 18 varieties of oil in more than 50 blends during the past seven years, McDonald's told the Chicago Tribune last week that it finally struck gold. It found a suitable trans fat-free oil that won't change the taste or texture of its top-selling menu item: french fries.

McDonald's says it is supplying about 1,200 of its American restaurants with the new oil after starting to secretly test it last summer.

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By early 2008 in the U.S., the fast-food giant plans to be cooking all its fries, as well as chicken nuggets and other fried items, in the vegetable oil blend that doesn't have the same unhealthful effects as trans fat.

McDonald's decision to jettison trans fats represents a late but significant move. As obesity rates have risen, the fast-food industry has come under pressure from health and nutrition advocates, consumers and governments to change its menu offerings. Because McDonald's is the largest and best-known purveyor of burgers and fries, it has taken the most heat.

After an embarrassing retreat from a 2002 announcement that it would soon eliminate trans fats from menu items, McDonald's used the time in a methodical and deliberate search for a new oil. The Oak Brook, Ill.-based hamburger giant feared a quick solution that tampered with the taste of the fries could have catastrophic consequences for the chain.

"We don't want to jeopardize the iconic nature of the french fry, which is so important to our brand," Jim Skinner, McDonald's chief executive, said at a recent investor conference. "Yet we have a responsibility to serve the best french fry that balances between value and nutrition."

McDonald's executives, pointing to customer reaction in test markets, say that fries cooked in the new oil remain true to their traditional taste, appearance, texture and aftertaste.

"Our customers don't want better," said Barbara Booth, director of the sensory science laboratory for McDonald's. "They want the same."

Booth said she believes the fries prepared in the new oil taste the same as the ones that have been sold by the chain since it opened its first hamburger stand in 1955.

A few of the company's executives aren't so sure. But Kevin Cook, senior vice president for U.S. restaurant systems, says he accepts the reaction from customers who have tried the new fry at 1,200 restaurants using the oil on a daily basis.

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Field tests of the oil have been continuing in several markets, including Phoenix, since last summer. In feedback sessions customers repeatedly have told McDonald's that they can't discern a difference, according to Cook.

The current tests, which Cook said are now complete, were the fourth time the company field-tested a substitute oil since the ill-fated announcement that it would introduce the new oil within six months. The three other oils failed for various reasons. Some clogged cooking filters, while others failed to produce a quality fry that could hold up as it cooled.

McDonald's first started looking at a trans fat-free oil in 1999, asking for help from Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. Cargill led the scientific blending and testing of oils, while McDonald's did tests on how it cooked and tasted. Neither firm would say how much money was spent developing the new oil.

But even with the formula in hand, replacing the millions of pounds of trans fat-laden hydrogenated vegetable oil used each year by McDonald's isn't going to be easy.

The company's 13,700 U.S. restaurants use more than 75 million pounds of oil each year to prepare the chain's french fries, chicken McNuggets, chicken strips and fish sandwiches. McDonald's U.S. restaurants aren't the only ones switching oils.

Despite the desire to maintain a uniform taste worldwide for its fries, McDonald's couldn't use its U.S.-developed oil in other areas. Regional differences in agricultural production required development of different blends.

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The new U.S. oil, a blend of canola and soybean oils created by Cargill solely for McDonald's, is different from other oils the restaurant chain has tested. Not only did it produce a "slightly crisp," "light golden brown fry" after frying for exactly 3 minutes and 10 seconds, it gave the fry "a fresh baked potato" texture, which is key, Cook said.

The oil will have to pass scrutiny with others regarding its fat content. Cook said he is sure some entity, such as Consumer Reports, will test the new oil as soon as it is available. The magazine did just that in September, after Wendy's announced it had switched oils, and reported that Wendy's fries were not trans fat-free.

Wendy's, however, said it stood by its tests.

It is only the fourth oil McDonald's has allowed to touch its fries in its history of more than 50 years.

In 1989, McDonald's switched from beef tallow to solid vegetable shortening after pressure from an Omaha, Neb., executive who launched a nationwide campaign against heart-threatening food. In 1992, the company switched again to what it and the rest of the nation's food industry thought was going to be a healthier product -- partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Instead of being healthier, however, the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil turned out to be a ticking time bomb.

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Researchers at Harvard University found that the trans fat created by the hydrogenation process clogged the arteries of people who consumed foods made with the product. The researchers estimated that 30,000 Americans die each year because of the fats. Recent research suggests trans fat might also contribute to Type 2 diabetes.

In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration gave packaged-food processors until 2006 to remove the offending trans fats or list the amount of trans fats on their labels. Now restaurants are facing similar pressure.

John Schmeltzer writes for the Chicago Tribune.


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