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New Oil, A Step In Right Direction

PULLMAN, Wash. — McDonald’s announced “new” oil for French fries and some other products is good news for human health, but no excuse for porking out on oil-rich foods, according to Washington State University food scientists.

Barry Swanson, professor of food science and human nutrition, said reducing trans fatty acids by 48 percent and saturated fat by 16 percent while increasing polyunsaturated fat is significant.

“I think it is commendable that they are trying to reduce trans fatty acids because trans fatty acids have been related to atherosclerosis and heart attacks,” Swanson said. “Increasing polyunsaturates also is a good thing.”

A spokesperson for McDonald’s told WSU officials that the “new” oil announced Tuesday is a blend of corn and soybean oil that is processed with a reduced level of hydrogenation.

Swanson said hydrogenation is the addition of hydrogen to harden oils. Restaurants want their oil solidified, like margarine, because it stabilizes the oil or fat so they retain their flavor and color longer.

Swanson said when restaurants sell French fries, “they are basically selling you flavorful oils.” That’s why McDonald’s is very careful in formulating and managing their cooking oils, and one reason McDonald’s French fries enjoy an excellent reputation among consumers.

McDonald’s new oil is an attempt to maintain high quality standards while providing consumers with a healthier product, Swanson said.

“When they say to me that they’re reducing the concentration of trans fatty acids, that tells me that they are increasing the percentage of corn oil. When they say they are reducing polyunsaturates, they are telling me that they are reducing hydrogenation,” Swanson said.

Although the scientific community is divided on questions of the role that fats play in human health, Swanson and Linda Massey, a WSU professor of human nutrition, agreed that McDonald’s new oil is a move in the right direction.

Massey called it, “A small step, but in the right direction.” She said one of the benefits of McDonald’s announcement isn’t the new oil, but the opportunity to educate consumers about their diets.

“It’s a real teaching point,” Massey said. “Consumers who want to know other foods that have trans fatty acids should look for the words ‘hydrogenated oil’ on food labels.”

Massey and Swanson agreed that consumers should be concerned both with the amount and the type of fat in their diets.

“Fats contribute the most calories per gram to the diet, more than twice as much as carbohydrates or proteins,” Swanson said. “That’s why nutritionists have generally suggested that pleasure foods are high in fat.”

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