NPR logo Why Do Fries Taste So Good? A Brief History


Why Do Fries Taste So Good? A Brief History

The signature taste of fast-food fries came about as something of an accident. Stephen Walls hide caption

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Stephen Walls

Finding a healthier cooking oil that still preserves that crispy, salty French fry goodness fast-food lovers crave won't be easy. But McDonald's — and the rest of the industry — has been through this before.

In fact, the signature taste of McDonald's fries came about as something of an accident.

By the 1950s, most other restaurants were using pure vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated to extend its shelf life. But the tiny shortening company that originally supplied McDonald's — Interstate Foods — was too small to afford hydrogenation equipment. So Interstate founder Harry Smargon turned to a centuries-old alternative: a blend of oil and beef fat.

As John F. Love wrote in his history, McDonald's: Behind the Arches, that beef-fat flavor would become the standard, not only for McDonald's but the rest of the growing fast-food industry.

"For reasons even he finds hard to explain, Smargon insisted that Interstate's shortening blend produced a crisper and more flavorful French fry than one cooked in all-vegetable shortening," Love says.

McDonald's founder Ray Kroc agreed. And that beef-fat blend dominated until the late 1980s, when fast-food companies were finally forced to switch to pure vegetable oil, out of concern that the saturated fat in beef tallow raises cholesterol. Even as they made the change, most restaurants tried to preserve the familiar beef-fat flavor of their French fries.

McDonald's, for one, continued to use essence of beef in its fries to retain some of the original flavor, though it failed to disclose it — prompting a lawsuit from vegetarians and Hindus, who consider cows sacred and don't eat beef.

But in switching to vegetable oil, fast-food chains also adopted the chemical process of adding hydrogen to the oil to extend its fry life. It's now known that the trans fats created by this partial hydrogenation are as bad for you, and possibly worse, than the saturated fats they replaced. Trans fats not only raise bad cholesterol levels, which increase the risk of coronary heart disease, but lower good cholesterol levels as well. As a result, McDonald's and other fast-food companies are under pressure to switch again.

In the meantime, some say a new generation of customers has grown accustomed to the taste of potatoes fried in partially hydrogenated oil.

"Right now, we get requests for a flavor profile, and we realize it's the minor components of hydrogenation that are imparting the flavor," says Research Vice President Mark Matlock of Archer Daniels Midland. "So they really want 'hydro flavor' in their product."

Still, lessons from another fast-food staple offer hope for a healthy and tasty outcome. When KFC decided to eliminate trans fats, the company stuck with a soybean oil similar to what it had been using, but with one major change: It's not made from partially hydrogenated oil, the source of trans fats.

Gregg Dedrick, president of KFC, said their fried chicken's "flavor profile" was unchanged. KFC carried out in-store testing and let customers taste chicken cooked in both the previous oil and the new, healthier oil. The result? They couldn't taste any difference, Dedrick says.