Producing frying oil on the cheap accidentally resulted in some legendary french fries. When one shortening company—Interstate Foods—added beef fat to cut costs, they created the oil that would make McDonald’s french fries famous. Sadly, those fries are now gone, replaced by what many consider to be an inferior product.
In the beginning, the McDonald brothers had one hamburger stand, and they bought their fry oil from Interstate. At the time, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was the preferred frying oil, but hydrogenation equipment was too expensive for Interstate’s tiny operation. By providing clients with a blend of about 7% vegetable oil and 93% beef tallow, they could extend the oil’s shelf life without the use of costly machinery. McDonald’s irresistibly crispy, flavorful french fries? Simply a byproduct of frugal savvy.
Ray Kroc, the salesman who would become the founder of the McDonald’s franchise, fell in love with this beef tallow–fried version in 1954. Imagining the treat replicated across the country, Kroc bought the restaurant’s franchise rights. He became a master of the french fry, developing potato curing methods and a “potato computer” to perfect cooking time.
This perfection got results. The signature fry, with its crispy edges and buttery, soft interior, delighted customers (including James Beard and Julia Child) and helped McDonald’s spread worldwide. But not everyone was a fan. In 1966, a business mogul named Phil Sokolof had a heart attack at the age of 43. In response, he founded the National Heart Savers Association to campaign against cholesterol and fat. His main target? McDonald’s, especially their fries.
Sokolof spent several decades and $15 million on his crusade. Facing full-page ads and consistent attacks from Sokolof, McDonald’s caved. In 1990, the company announced that they would replace the beef tallow with 100 percent vegetable oil. After the announcement, McDonald’s stock fell 8.3 percent.
The new fry didn’t stack up. As it turns out, the beef tallow had added more than just cholesterol to the signature french fry. To compensate for the loss of meaty flavor, McDonald’s added “natural beef flavor.” Even worse, the fries lost much of the contrasting soft and crunchy texture that Kroc loved, and the new fries weren’t exactly healthier. As the public later learned, the trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oil posed serious health threats, forcing McDonald’s to change the recipe again.
McDonald’s introduced french fry version 3.0, which is cooked in vegetable oil with less trans fat, around 2007. Fans of the first fry are still wondering why McDonald’s didn’t just switch back to the beloved original recipe. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell is one such die-hard fan: “Everything about it was a mistake,” he said in an interview on House of Carbs. “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.’”
Perhaps the french fry wasn’t meant to be a health food, after all.