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Fast food chains use higher-fat corn oil

Fast-food chains are more likely than smaller restaurants to cook their French fries in corn oil, which is higher in cholesterol-raising saturated fats than other vegetable oils, a study from the University of Hawaii found.

Almost 70 percent of the national fast-food chain restaurants such as McDonald's Corp. and Wendy's/Arby's Group Inc. on Hawaii's island of Oahu used corn oil mixed with other oils for their French fries compared with 20 percent of independent restaurants, according to research published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

McDonald's, the world's largest restaurant company, and rivals Burger King Holdings Inc., the second-largest U.S. hamburger seller, and Wendy's/Arby's Group said previously they switched to vegetable fry oils to remove trans fats. The trans fats raise cholesterol levels in the blood and may increase the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Still, the Hawaii researchers said, the frying oil used now by the chains includes corn oil that is higher in saturated fats, that also raises cholesterol.

The fact that we've gotten rid of trans fats from fast food and from restaurant food is a major advance, said Louis Aronne, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, in a Jan. 15 telephone interview. This shows that we're making progress, but there's benefit to eating in small local restaurants from health perspective because of the different oil sources.

Fat Ratios

Aronne, who wasn't connected to today's study, said corn oil has the least favorable ratio of saturated fats to so-called good fats among commonly used vegetable oils. It is better than the oils that contain trans fat, he said.

McDonald's completed its transition to a blend of canola, corn and soy oils in U.S. restaurants in May 2008, said Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for the Oak Brook, Illinois-based company, in an e-mail.

This allows us to serve fried menu items with reduced levels of trans fat and saturated fat, while delivering the same great taste our customers expect from McDonald's, she said. All fried menu items on McDonald's national core menu contain 0 grams trans fat per serving.

Saturated Fats

Burger King wasn't available today to comment on the study because its offices were closed for the Martin Luther King holiday, said Alix Salyers, an executive vice president with Edelman, a public relations firm for Burger King, which is based in Miami. Wendy/Arby's, based in Atlanta, didn't return a phone call and e-mail message sent to their office.

Saturated fats are typically eaten in foods from animals and some plants. Trans fats result from adding hydrogen to vegetable oils for use in commercial baked goods and cooking foods in restaurants. Many restaurants switched their cooking methods after New York City in December 2006 banned trans fat in cooking oils.

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