Good Intentions Could Pose Marketing Challenge With Consumers

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CHICAGO ( -- McDonald's Corp., one of several fast-food chains under fire for its fattening fare, is getting an oil change.

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based burger giant today said in October it will begin using a new cooking oil with half the transfatty acids in oil it now uses to make french fries, Filet O Fish and Chicken McNuggets.

Same amount of calories
While total fat content and calories will remain the same, the company contends the new oil contains 16% less saturated fat and 167% more polyunsaturated fat, considered by nutrition experts to be less artery clogging. The company expects all 13,000 of its units to have the new oil by February 2003, putting it on par with transfatty acid levels in McDonald's European units.

The American Heart Association issued a statement praising the effort but was quick to caution consumers that the switch doesn't lower calories.

"The public needs to remain alert to the portion size and calorie content of fast foods," said Robert H. Eckel, M.D., the chairman of the American Heart Association's council for nutrition, physical activity and metabolism. "For example, a super-sized meal, which presents good value for the price, often contains enough calories for two meals. If it is split between two people, it becomes a better bargain, and has half the calories. Another source of calories is sugary soft drinks -- they often contain more calories than most people realize."

Starting a trend?
Alice H. Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, calls the move a step in the right direction, although "it's unclear what total impact this change will have," she said. "If they start a trend, then it could create a potentially large impact."

Mike Roberts, president of McDonald's USA, in a statement called the "healthier" oil a "win-win" for customers, claiming that the flavor of its famous fries won't change.

Despite its healthy intentions, the move could prove unhealthy for the Golden Arches from a marketing standpoint, said Bob Goldin, executive vice president for food consultant Technomic.

'Tampering with an icon'
"I don't know how discernable the [change in] taste will be," he said. "Unfortunately, there is a tendency for consumers to think the taste has been compromised, and they almost always respond negatively when you tamper with an icon. They changed Coke and it didn't go over too well."

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