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McDonald's big fat switch dupes public

By Marian Burros

New York Times News Service

McDonald's scored a brilliant marketing coup when it announced it was reducing the level of artery-clogging trans fatty acids and saturated fats in the oil it uses for frying.

Lost in all the hoopla is that, even with fewer trans fatty acids and saturated fats, anyone ordering a Big Mac, super-size fries and a super-size Coke will consume more than 1,600 calories. For children, the meal takes care of all daily calorie needs, with some left over for the day after.

"This is nothing more than dressing up nutritionally poor and calorie-dense food, at a time when obesity has reached epidemic proportions" and 10 percent to 15 percent of children younger than 10 are obese, said Dr. Henry Anhalt, director of pediatric endocrinology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. "McDonald's will sell more french fries, and the public is being duped."

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McDonald's is the first major fast-food chain in the United States to get rid of what the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine says is a fat with "no known health benefits." Scientists have known for almost a decade that it raises the level of "bad" cholesterol and may also lower the level of "good" cholesterol.

Tastes the same

Responding to this information, McDonald's switched to the more healthful fat in its European outlets in the mid-1990s. Walt Riker, a company spokesman, said there was an insufficient supply of the right oil in the United States then. The company says people will not notice a difference in taste.

Trans fatty acids are found in hydrogenated vegetable oil, shortenings, and in packaged foods like cookies, crackers and snacks. In 1990, McDonald's switched from beef fat, which is filled with saturated fat, to hydrogenated vegetable oils because those oils are lower in saturated fat.

In a report Sept. 6, the Institute of Medicine, a government agency, said that there is no "safe" level of trans fatty acids and that people should eat as few of them as possible. The Food and Drug Administration said it would require nutrition labels to list trans fats, which account for about 5 percent of the fat in the American diet.

The McDonald's announcement diverts attention from the real issue: calories. No one wants to talk about calories because cutting them means dealing with the concept of eating less food, an unwelcome thought for many people.

Dr. David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, has produced a study to prove the point. "The more food you put in front of college students, the more they will eat," he said.

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