The Fat-Filled Fast-Food Fry Wars

by John K. Wilson

2 January 1998

January 2, 1998: Today is not just any Friday; it's Free FryDay, when Burger King officially launches its new French fries with a massive ad campaign featuring Mr. Potato Head in the 48 foot-long Burger King Fry Mobile, and a free small order of fries to everyone in their stores. But before you rush out to try these "crispier," "tastier" fries, consider the one adjective that doesn't pass through Mr. Potato Head's plastic lips: healthier.

How did Burger King make their French fries crispier and better-tasting? Easy: they more than tripled the amount of sodium and increased the saturated fat by 60%. That's according to nutritional information on the Burger King website, which provides separate entries for the old french fries and the new "coated french fries." A medium order of the new fries has 400 calories, 21 grams of fat (eight of them saturated), and 820 mg of sodium--and that's before consumers pour salt and sodium-laden ketchup on top.

Burger King isn't the only fast-food place secretly increasing the amount of fat in its food in an effort to draw customers and contribute to the national obesity problem. I examined a nutritional information pamphlet for McDonald's from November 1993, and the differences compared to the nutritional data currently listed on the McDonald's website are astonishing. The 1993 small Vanilla Shake had 310 calories and five grams of fat; the 1998 small Vanilla Shake has 360 calories and nine grams of fat--six of these grams saturated fat, doubling the 1993 total. But the Vanilla Shake is downright healthy compared to most of McDonald's food. The Big Mac of 1998 has 560 calories, 31 grams of fat, and 1070 mg of sodium--an increase of 60 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 180 mg of sodium over the 1993 model.

Even foods that McDonald's presents as healthy--like the Grilled Chicken Deluxe--have been packed with extra fat. The 1993 McGrilled Chicken sandwich was, by McDonald's standards, fairly healthy--400 calories, 12 grams of fat, 680 mg of sodium. The 1998 Grilled Chicken Deluxe is the same size (it has only 40 more calories), but McDonald's has added 8 extra grams of fat (a 67% increase) and 360 more mg of sodium (a 53% increase). Surprisingly, the one area where McDonald's hasn't increased the fat in its food is the fries, perhaps because they're already full of fat. Today's large french fries have 50 more calories and 90 more mg of sodium than the 1993 version, but the amount of fat has stayed level at 22 grams and the saturated fat is listed as 4 grams, one less gram than in 1993. Perhaps this is why Burger King saw an opportunity to out-fat Mickey D's by doubling the fat content in its fries--and inevitably making them "crispier" and "tastier."

Unfortunately, few consumers are aware of these facts because fast-food restaurants don't announce that they're making their food less healthy. McDonald's deceives consumers on its website by declaring, "All foods can fit into a healthful eating plan, because it's the total diet that counts...there are no good or bad foods." Oh really? If you go to McDonald's and order a Super Size Unhealthy Meal (a Big Mac with Super Size fries and a "Baked" Apple Pie for dessert), it has a grand total of 70 grams of fat--a full day's worth of fat for an average person. At Burger King, a Big King (its larger Big Mac imitation), medium fries, and Dutch Apple Pie will get you 79 grams of fat.

Fast-food places have given up on healthy food because they know no one holds them accountable for serving worse and worse junk food. McDonald's dumped the McLean Deluxe (which failed because McDonald's could never market it properly without pointing out the fact that 95% of its food is terrible for your health) in favor of the Arch Deluxe with Bacon, an even worse commercial failure which contains 34 grams of fat. Now McDonald's is test marketing the Big Xtra, a Whopper imitator that's 20% bigger. (McDonald's is a bit touchy about the nutrition issue: it just concluded the longest libel suit in England's history against two Greenpeace activists who dared to distribute a pamphlet attacking the poor nutrition in McDonald's food, a story told in John Vidal's book "McLibel.") Worst of all, the fry wars are target our children at a time when obesity is a growing problem. Fast-food companies push fat-loaded fries on kids using the cute little Mr. Potato Head and his clownish rival in a campaign that would make Joe Camel smile. "The new fry launch represents the first time in Burger King history that a kids marketing program has been integrated with a new product introduction," declares an ebullient Burger King press release.

Consumers should demand new laws requiring fast-food restaurants to put nutritional information on their packaging, just like the labels on food in supermarkets. Of course, it's possible that the American people will choose to eat their way to heart disease, savoring every gram of saturated fat. But at least they'll kill themselves knowing the truth. And maybe, just maybe, they'll go tell Burger King "spokespud" Mr. Potato Head that we prefer him baked, not fried.

John K. Wilson is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and editor of the Hyde Park Cooperative Society's Evergreen.

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