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Trans fats hit the fire

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's reviled by doctors, and demonized by the media. Now it's going to be banned in New York City restaurants. The partially hydrogenated vegetable oil that once was seen as a solution to America's love affair with grease had a hur...

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MINNEAPOLIS -- It's reviled by doctors, and demonized by the media. Now it's going to be banned in New York City restaurants.

The partially hydrogenated vegetable oil that once was seen as a solution to America's love affair with grease had a hurried fall from grace this year as new labeling laws focused attention on the oil's abundance of artificial trans fats.

The change has left food companies scrambling to find alternatives while protecting the tastes that made them famous, such as that of the McDonald's french fry. The New York City ban will require McDonald's to replace its cooking oil with something more healthful within 18 months.

That's where Cargill Inc. comes in. The Minnesota agribusiness giant and food ingredient company supplies McDonald's with many of the foods that become fries, cheeseburgers and all the rest, and has spent the past several years working on oils free of trans fats. A solution was thought to be at hand four years ago, but it failed consumer taste tests.

Now both companies will be forced to find a solution. Neither company would comment directly on the new oil for McDonald's, but McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner said recently that the company has sampled a variety of oils at restaurants throughout the country. Any switch, however, would be a big deal for McDonald's, which had $20.5 billion in sales from 31,886 locations worldwide in 2005.

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"There are alternatives out there, but they are much more expensive alternatives," said Ted Labuza, a food scientist at the University of Minnesota. A promising soybean known as the low-linolenic variety creates a cooking oil without trans fats, but farmers have just begun planting the new seed, and it's expected to account for only 6 percent of soybean oil produced next year. "Places like McDonald's, they like to have a steady, constant supply of the same thing everywhere, so the taste doesn't change anywhere," Labuza said.

COMPETITORSARE SWITCHING

The New York City ban is upping the ante for McDonald's and the rest of the $142 billion fast-food industry to make a switch. One by one, food companies have dropped or are dropping trans fats from their menus.

Arby's Restaurant Group Inc. announced last month that it will remove trans fats from its french fries. KFC Corp. and Taco Bell earlier said they would do so by April. Burger King Holdings Inc. is looking for an alternative to trans fats, while PepsiCo, which owns the Frito-Lay brand, has removed trans fats from its products. These companies have switched to alternatives such as corn, zero-trans-fat soybean and canola oils. At least one restaurant chain, Wendy's, turned to Cargill to develop a trans-fat-free oil.

McDonald's said four years ago that it would switch oils, and had intended to make the switch by February 2003. McDonald's did introduce a new oil, canola, in 2002, but it failed taste tests, said edible oils analyst Monoj Gupta. "Taste was one of the major things wrong, and the cost was too high," he said.

This year, McDonald's settled an $8.5 million lawsuit brought by the Web site Bantransfats.com, which has pressured food companies to drop trans fat from their food products. The company agreed to donate $7 million to the American Heart Association and spend $1.5 million to raise awareness about the dangers of trans fats.

NO QUICK FIX

The trouble is, for a giant such as McDonald's, there's simply no easy alternative.

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The nation's farmers grow75 million acres of soybeans each year, enough for 17 billion pounds of soybean oil, dwarfing the1-million-acre canola and2-million-acre sunflower crops. About 4 billion pounds of that oil is converted to partially hydrogenated oil, according to Pioneer, a seed company owned by DuPont.

"You have to find an alternative product that is available in amounts that you can depend on," said Robert Reeves, president of the Institute for Shortening and Edible Oils, an industry trade group. "What they serve in New York has to be what they serve in New Orleans."

The rush to produce low trans-fat oils has put pressure on soybean farmers like never before to grow low-linolenic beans, a genetic variation developed by an Iowa State University professor. The low-linolenic soybean has less linolenic acid, the substance that makes soybean oil go rancid and requires hydrogenation to control.

A low-linolenic seed developed by Pioneer has less than 3 percent linolenic acid, compared with a regular soybean's 7 percent. A seed developed by Walter Fehr, the Iowa State professor, and marketed by Asoya, a company based in Iowa, has less than 1 percent linolenic acid.

Farmers planted 30,000 acres of the soybean in 2004, but more than 1 million acres will be needed to meet demand, according to Asoya.

A LONGTIME PARTNERSHIP

Cargill has long supplied McDonald's with many of its food ingredients. In April, McDonald's gave Cargill its first "U.S. supplier of the year award," at the Mason City, Iowa, location of Sunny Fresh Farms, a Cargill subsidiary that supplies McDonald's with eggs. Other Cargill businesses provide cooking oil, beef trim for patties, salt, sauces and even risk-management services.

The company's longstanding oilseed business works with soybean and canola oils, said Wyatt Elder, technical director of Cargill's North American dressings, sauces and oils business.

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"The one thing I would tell you about oils and fats is that they do a multitude of things, even within a simple product like a french fry," he said. The taste, smell and feel of soy oil is so well known to American consumers -- even if they don't know that they're eating soy oil -- that it's difficult to fool the mouth, he said.

The complexity of what's at stake means there won't be any quick fixes, he said. It took the food industry 20 years to develop its current flavors, textures and performance, Elder said. "We tend to forget how long it took to get there," he said.

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