Fixing the Fat

Can McDonald's (MCD ) customers have their fat--and their health? Under pressure from nutrition experts targeting the fast-food industry's role in the obesity epidemic, McDonald's is cutting the artery-clogging fat in its french fries, Chicken McNuggets, and other fried foods. It will use a new oil, developed with Cargill Inc., that reduces trans-fatty acids by 48% and saturated fats by 16%. To preserve taste, McDonald's says it will more than double polyunsaturated fats, which are less harmful.

Trans-fatty acids are found in hydrogenated vegetable shortening, which is cheap and lasts a long time in friers. But trans-fatty acids increase bad cholesterol in the blood, a prime cause of heart disease. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest tried for years to get fast-food giants to reduce their use of trans-fatty acids. "This change represents a significant improvement in the nutritional quality of fried foods," says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the center. He said it sets the standard for other restaurants and packaged-food companies.

The change may take some heat off McDonald's. The Food & Drug Administration has a draft rule that would require labeling of foods with trans-fatty acids. And in July, a Bronx (N.Y.) man sued McDonald's and three other chains, saying they caused his health problems. The cost of the shift should be minimal for McDonald's, says one analyst. But don't expect much change for customers' bottom lines, either: Even with the new oil, a large order of fries still packs a stout 540 calories.

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