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Why Did McDonald's Change Their French Fries Recipe in the 90s?

In the early 90s, McDonald's changed a key element in an attempt to make their french fries healthier. And, as Malcolm Gladwell explains, it ended up having the opposite effect.


Gladwell, the host of the popular podcast Revisionist History, recently dedicated an episode to the landmark change.

From the founding of McDonald's in the 1950s up until July of 1990, french fries at the popular fast food joint basically made the same way: by frying them in beef tallow.

But, according to Gladwell, everything changed because of one man: Phil Sokolof, an American businessman.

You see, after years of eating fried food, Sokolof had a heart attack in 1966 at the age of 43, setting him on course to become a crusader in the fight against high cholesterol diets. Besides founding the National Heart Savers Association in 1985, Sokolof spent over $3 million of his own money on advertisements claiming that McDonald's food was bad for you.

This included a full-page ad from 1990 with the headline: "The poisoning of America," accusing the chain of loading their fries with fat.

"I can’t say we’re going to tear down the golden arches by the year 2000," Sokolov told The New York Times that year, "but I am confident that by the year 2000 they are going to be serving more healthful food."

Apparently Sokolof's crusade worked, because on July 23, 1990, McDonald's made the switch from beef tallow to vegetable oil, and hasn't looked back since.

The move even prompted other chains like Burger King and Wendy's to change their frying process.

But for Gladwell, it changed everything about the fry.

"As you dig into this, what you realize is that that is not an inconsequential move. It’s not like when you’re frying an egg where it doesn’t really matter what you fry it in. A fried egg is a fried egg," he said. "A French fry is a combination of a potato and some kind of cooking element. The thing you fry it in becomes a constituent part of the fry."

But here's the kicker.

It turns out that vegetable oil is actually worse for you than beef tallow, according to new health studies.

"So not only did they destroy the French fry, they gave us something that was worse for us from a health perspective. So everything about it was a mistake," Gladwell remarked.

He added: "If they had any balls at all, they would turn around and say, ‘We were wrong, and we’re going back to fries the old way.’"

And while the revelation by Gladwell was informative, it wasn't necessarily appreciated by everyone:

Millennials don't know what they're missing:

But then again...

Listen to the full episode of the podcast here.

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H/T: Indy100, AU News, Twitter