Before 1990, McDonald’s fried up their french fries in beef tallow. It was a mix of fat and starch perfected over years of experimentation. Then a man in Omaha named Phil Sokolof had a heart attack. His doctor told him that saturated fat and cholesterol were to blame and Sokolof went on a national crusade to take the fat out of America’s food, with McDonald’s on the top of his kill list. And somehow he won.
Malcolm Gladwell opens his latest episode of Revisionist History with a nostalgic yarn. “Have you ever seen a puppy encounter snow for the first time? He burrows his nose into it with this look of perplexity and sheer delight because he can’t understand where this white thing came from,” Gladwell says. “It was like that for me. A Slice of potato…”
And then McDonald’s broke a young Gladwell’s heart when they changed their oil in 1990.
McDonald’s had been using beef tallow to make their fries from the pre Ray Kroc days. It was the amazing luscious crispiness of the McDonald brother’s fries that initially got Kroc’s attention in the first place. That’s how good they were. But in 1990 all of that changed.
Phil Sokolof made his millions selling dry wall throughout America. He then spent 15 million of his own fortune to fight saturated fat on the national stage by targeting the fast food industry. He would go on TV to talk over actual food industry people about the dangers of fat. The sort of blowhard with bad science who was able to thrive in the pre-internet era.
This is where things get interesting: Gladwell’s telling of the oil wars story. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, et al changed their oils to corn, soy, or cottonseed oils. This, in turn, created a whole mess of other problems because those oils are trans-fats heavy — which is by far worse than saturated fats. Gladwell notes that the big fast food chains devised vegetable oil blends that eliminated trans-fats, but created an extremely unstable oil for cooking with, especially when compared to the stability of animal fats.