Why McDonald's Isn't Free of Trans Fat

Public opinion is swinging against the use of the artery-clogging fat. But it's hard for some companies to give up the habit

On Dec. 5, New York City's Board of Health voted to ban the use of artery-clogging trans fats at restaurants, a major victory for health activists who have been fighting for healthier foods. Restaurants will have to stop using frying oils with trans fats by July, 2007, and eliminate trans fats from all foods by July, 2008. "New Yorkers overwhelmingly favor action to get artificial trans fat out of their restaurants," says Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Companies such as McDonald's (MCD) are expected to comply with the city's vote by converting their restaurants in New York. The fast-food giant already has demonstrated that it can eliminate trans fats when required. In Denmark, the company switched the oil it uses to make French fries to one that doesn't have any trans fat. And just last month, the food giant vowed to use the healthier oil in 6,300 other restaurants in Europe.

Life Saver

Come July, it will be interesting to see whether McDonald's will give up trans fat in the rest of the U.S. along with New York City. It is one of many food companies that have continued to use the artificial fat, even as the tide of public opinion has swung against its use. There are a combination of reasons. McDonald's says there aren't yet good substitutes for trans fat and that switching may compromise the taste of its food. Using trans-fat frying oils also allows fast-food chains to trim costs, since the same oil can be used for weeks. Food companies such as Kraft (KFT) and Sara Lee (SLE) also have stuck with trans fat in certain products, since it can help extend the shelf life of baked goods and other products.

Frieden and others contend that there isn't any excuse to continue using trans fats. Time and again, cardiologists and scientists have proven that trans fats are toxic for heart health. "If New Yorkers replace all sources of artificial trans fat, by even the most conservative estimates, at least 500 deaths from heart disease would be prevented each year in New York City—more than the number of people killed annually in motor vehicle crashes," says Walter Willett, M.D., and chair of the Nutrition Dept. at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Trans fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is a toxic substance that does not belong in food." McDonald's did not return phone calls seeking comment.

What are trans fats? They are solid fats created by adding hydrogen into cooking oils. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are used for frying French fries and chicken and for baking croissants, cookies, and donuts. Many politicians have taken up the fight to reduce their use. Among them is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also fought against naysayers to institute a smoking ban in the city's bars and restaurants. During a press conference on Dec. 5, Bloomberg said he wasn't trying to ban hamburgers and French fries but that he was just trying to have them made in a healthier way. "If you can eat out without trans fats, you can save a couple of hundred lives a year," he says.

Taste Test

Under such pressure, more and more restaurant chains have committed to give up trans fats. Wendy's (WEN) switched to a 0-gram trans-fat cooking oil in August at its 6,000 restaurants, and Yum! Brands (YUM), which operates 5,500 KFC and 4,200 Taco Bell restaurants, also committed to fry its chicken in trans-fat-free oil by April, 2007 (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/30/06, "KFC Joins the Trans-Fat Fight").

Alternatives to trans fat seem readily available. J. M. Smucker Co. released its Crisco Zero Trans Fat Shortening two years ago. It said that the newly formulated oil didn't have additional saturated fat and would produce the same results as the original hydrogenated Crisco. And other big oil manufacturers including Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), and Bunge (BG) are making substitutes.

So, why have some fast-food chains, bakeries, and food companies found it so hard to part ways with trans fat? Fast-food chains won't say so publicly, but the hydrogenated oil that contains trans fat stays stable for long periods, so the same oil can be used for longer periods of time. Regular oil goes rancid fairly quickly, and many restaurants would need to buy more oil than they currently do. Bakeries use hydrogenated oil because it has the right consistency for making pastries and cookies, and it also gives them a longer shelf life.

As for McDonald's, it has said in the past that the company's priority is to meet taste and quality expectations of customers. It originally pledged to get rid of trans fat in its restaurants by 2003. But so far, it says, it hasn't been able to find an adequate substitute.

Click here to see a slide show of 10 popular foods that contain trans fat.