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Do corporate sweetheart deals make French fries less healthy?

Few would argue that French fries are a healthy food choice, but a new study shows that French fries from national restaurant chains in the United States are actually worse for you—and the environment—than many believed. The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) found that due to corporate deals French fries in national restaurant chains are largely fried in one of the worse possible vegetable oils: corn oil.

According to the study, which surveyed restaurant chains and independent restaurants in Hawaii, 69 percent of national chains used corn oil for frying their potatoes, while only 20 percent of independent restaurants did the same.

“There are several reasons why knowledge of the inclusion of corn oil might be important to the consumer,” the authors write. “Corn oil […] contains considerably more heart-harmful saturated fat than canola, sunflower, or safflower oils, and less heart-protective alphalinolenic acid than soybean oil, making it the least healthy choice of the five.” In addition: “U.S. corn agriculture has been criticized for its negative impacts on the environment and its conspicuous federal subsidization.”

A row of deep fryers cooking French fries. Photo by: David Hoshor.

Soybean oil is significantly cheaper than corn oil, which explains why independent restaurants would avoid largely avoid using corn oil. But why would national chains opt to pay more for vegetable oil? The authors speculate that national chains must have negotiated sweetheart deals for cheap corn oil, since “large-scale corporate agreements are necessary to make corn oil frying cost-effective”.

The study found that corn oil comprised a minimum of 36 percent in the oil mixture used to fry potatoes at Arby’s and Wendy’s. A previous study found that Arby’s and Wendy’s also use corn oil for their beef and chicken. McDonalds uses a minimum of 16 percent corn oil in its oil mixture, while Burger King uses at least 50 percent. It’s likely that Jack in the Box avoids corn oil altogether.

Researchers were able to determine the amount of corn oil used for French fries at 134 restaurants by testing the fries for corn oil’s uniquely high carbon isotope when compared to other cooking oils.

In the United States restaurants are excluded from the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, allowing them to provide the minimal amount of information possible (or none whatsoever) regarding the ingredients they use.

Citation: A. Hope Jahren and Brian A. Schubert. Corn content of French fry oil from national chain vs.small business restaurants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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