Process of making tasty fries is more laboratory than garden patch

Fast food companies are facing increasing pressure these days to improve the quality of their food.  Whether its McDonald's Corp. (MCD) heating their coffee to super-hot temperatures to try to disguise their weak brew and subsequently getting sued for burning a customer -- or Taco Bell Corp. (YUM) getting hit with a suit of its own when its taco "meat" turned out to be a bit lacking in the meat department, people these days aren't putting up with shenanigans at the drive-thru.

Wendy's Arby's Group Inc. (WEN) has become the latest fast food giant to be exposed for flaws in its hasty fare.

The company last fall introduced a new product at Wendy's restaurants -- Natural Cut Fries With Sea Salt.  The product is now in the limelight thanks to a new string of commercials.  The new fries are noticeable as they leave part of the potato skin on.

Wendy's describes them, writing [press release]:

Wendy's new fries, launched nationally in November 2010, were developed specifically to meet consumers' demand for a better-tasting, higher-quality French fry. They're made from 100% Russet potatoes and sliced "natural-style" with the skin on for additional texture and taste, then cooked in proprietary oil that has 0 grams trans fat per serving. They are finished with a dusting of natural sea salt to further enhance the flavor.

And they're doing great.  In a national blind taste test by an independent firm hired by Wendy's, 56 percent of people preferred the new fries, while 39 percent preferred McDonald's fries (5% had no preference).  And at the 6,600 Wendy's joints worldwide, orders of fries have soared up 10 percent.

But a BNET blogger has poked a hole in Wendy's claims of the fries being "natural".  According to the report, the fries use a stew of exotic laboratory chemicals to improve the fries' appearance, flavor, and ease of cooking.

The fries do away with the steam skinning -- ironically, one of the most "natural" parts of the average fast food company's fry manufacturing process.  

Chopped, the fries begin their chemical journey with a dip in sodium acid pyrophosphate.  They're also powdered with slightly more natural D-glucose (crystallized from corn).  Together the two components prevent the fries from browning during their first fry at the factory and their second fry at the restaurant.

As BNET points out, this makes Wendy's fries less "natural" than some competitors.  For example Five Guys' fries are only fried once and are made from fresh potatoes -- thus they don't suffer from the same browning issues, eliminating the need for the chemical dip.

Five Guys and pretty much every other large chain burger joint use a special chemical called dimethylpolysiloxane that prevents the oil from foaming, even after countless batches of fries.  And guess what?  Wendy's "natural" fries use this non-naturally occurring chemical, as well.

Wendy's emphasizes that the fries are made from "100% Russet potatoes."  But according to John Keeling of the National Potato Council, "Virtually all processed French fries are Russets."

Even Wendy's Chief Market Officer, Ken Caldwell, so much as admits the "natural" fries aren't 100 percent natural.  He states in an interview with BNET, "People are saying they want high integrity ingredients, things their grandmother would have used, that don’t look like they came out of a chemistry lab. But they’re also saying I’ve got a family to feed and can only afford to spend about $4 on my lunch, and I’ve only got about a minute or two to eat it."

"We’re taking it product line by product line to make our food closer to this real ingredients story. Over time, you’ll see our ingredient labels getting shorter and more of those high integrity ingredients. It just takes time."

Health-wise the fries are a mixed bag.  They add a grab of dietary fiber -- which promotes good digestion.  But they also bump sodium content 43 percent.  That's a bit problematic -- excess sodium can cause heart problems, and Americans tend to get too much in their diet already.

Will Wendy's misleading labeling, though, lead to yet another class action lawsuit?  You never know, but Wendy's customers may be less likely to push the point.  After all, the fries may have been exposed for not being "as real as it gets" like Wendy's claims, but -- according to most -- they make up for it in taste.

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