Finding healthier food oils a struggle


CHICAGO – In 2002, McDonald’s Corp. proudly announced that it soon planned to switch to an oil producing lower amounts of artery-clogging trans fats and saturated fats.

Four years later, the world’s largest hamburger chain is still looking for a healthier method of cooking french fries.

The problem remains identifying an oil that is healthier to cook with while still producing the distinctively crunchy and flavorful fries that made McDonald’s famous.

The struggle to find a substitute for the partially hydrogenated oil that’s been used for decades to prepare some of America’s most popular foods isn’t just an issue for McDonald’s. It’s high on the agenda at the National Restaurant Show, which opens Saturday at McCormick Place.

More than 73,000 people are expected to attend the show, which will feature some of the latest restaurant trends and innovations, including the search for an oil that will produce the trans fat free foods that government and nutritionists agree are necessary to reduce obesity and improve the nation’s health.

Some experts say the edible oil industry is closer to finding a product that will satisfy McDonald’s, the rest of the industry and, most importantly, diners.

“I would not have known the appetizers were trans-fat free,” said Angela Widemon of Chicago, who tested an appetizer variety plate at Jake Melnick’s Restaurant on Wednesday that included french fries, buffalo wings and fried mozzarella sticks.

Widemon and a friend, Adam London, were offered a chance to try foods cooked with one of the newest oil offerings as part of a two-week test that Melnick’s had been conducting with Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences LLC.

Not alienating established customers was a key for Melnick’s, a unit of Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, which joined with Dow, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co.

“My main concern was keeping the integrity of what we have here at Jake’s and how we set up the menu. I didn’t want to have any deviation in the taste of the product or the color,” said Billy Gorman, Melnick’s chief chef.

Gorman, who said finding a healthier oil is a key for many restaurants, said the test, which will end Saturday, was a huge success.

“The taste wasn’t really any different from any other product we have had,” he said, noting that other than a slight color change the oil had performed as well as the partially hydrogenated soybean oil currently used.

Few restaurants, however, have made the switch to healthier oils.

Other than Eat’n Park Restaurants, which operates more than 75 restaurants and corporate and university dining facilities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, the majority of those that have switched are individually owned, according to industry officials.

McDonald’s has admitted to failing repeatedly in coming up with a suitable substitute. Different oils have been able to duplicate the taste but not the texture. In taste tests, Fries have crumbled in the hands of diners or turned to mush in their mouths.

Chief Executive Jim Skinner recently said the chain did not want to start using an oil that Americans would reject. He said that McDonald’s is again testing a healthier oil in some U.S. markets.

Removing the trans fats from foods, whether they are manufactured for the home or served at a restaurant, is essential to reducing heart attacks in the United States.

Trans fat – also known as trans fatty acids – increases the risk of heart disease risk because it raises total cholesterol and bad cholesterol (LDL), and lowers good (HDL) cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association.

Today, a large package of McDonald’s fries contains 8 grams of trans fats, five times the daily maximum recommended amount set by the government.

Manufacturers, such as Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co., Bunge Oils, Inc., and several smaller manufacturers such Nexcel Food Ingredients Inc. were quick to offer substitutes, including canola, and sunflower and modified soybean oils. But the industry has struggled to find oils that offer many of the same properties – from taste to shelf life – of the current oils.

Many of the nation’s chain restaurants, such as McDonald’s, Applebee’s, KFC and Dunkin’ Donuts, are under particular pressure to find substitutes because they operate restaurants around the world and many European countries already have banned the partially hydrogenated oils or have set deadlines for eliminating the oil from use.