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Were McDonald’s Fries Better Before the ’90s?

Malcolm Gladwell discusses a change in the recipe that impacted his childhood

McDonald’s french fries on a table Photo illustration by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In February, The Ringer ranked McDonald’s french fries as the third-best fast food item in America. But some think that McDonald’s fries used to be much, much better. On a recent episode of his podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell uncovered a change that McDonald’s made in its fries in 1992. Were the fries better before then? Gladwell and Joe House discussed the change on the latest episode of House of Carbs.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Gladwell: I remember, as I'm sure you remember, how good McDonald's french fries were back in the day. When I was a teenager and I went to McDonald's all the time, I went there because of the fries. And then at a certain point, the fries didn't taste the same. They sucked. I go back there now and they're not the fries I grew up on. And so I've always been curious about this. What happened?

I decided I'm going to get to the bottom of this. And the answer is—they changed the way they made them in 1992. They went from frying them in beef tallow to frying them in some combination of vegetable oil. And as you dig into this, what you realize is that that is not an inconsequential move. It's not like when you're frying an egg where it doesn't really matter what you fry it in. A fried egg is a fried egg. A french fry is a combination of a potato and some kind of cooking element. The thing you fry it in becomes a constituent part of the fry.

There was an enormous thought that went into how to make a french fry properly back in the ’50s, when fast food [was] getting started in this country. And let's also remember, it's a crucial part of the story that McDonald's is McDonald's not because of the burger. It's McDonald's because of the fries. Ray Kroc, when he goes to the original fast food place run by the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino, California, in the ’50s, he didn’t give a shit about the burger. I mean, there's tons of good burgers. Anyone who has barbecued knows you can't botch the burger, right? The fries were what blew him away. And he says in his autobiography, the fries would be sacrosanct. In other words, he was attracted to this—to what the McDonald brothers were doing because they had figured out the secret of the fry. And he wasn't going to screw it up. And then what happened? He screwed it up. Forty years later, he changed the recipe.

I mean this is the emotional undercurrent of my podcast. It's called “McDonald’s Broke My Heart” because they did break my heart. I care passionately about fries.

House: So during my lifetime and yours, it was widely accepted amongst all of my peers and friends and even adults that McDonald's served the very best french fries. And for me, that has persisted to my thinking today, notwithstanding the fact that I know that the recipe changed. And what I'm curious about is—because you were introduced to McDonald's french fries kind of later, not as a child—it's probably a lot more palpable. The experience of your enjoyment of the french fries changed in a way that it didn't change for me that way.

Gladwell: You got anchored. I think maybe that's why I had such a bad reaction to the switch. What I do in the show is I go to the leading food research and development house in the country—place called Mattson—and I had them … do a taste test. And they made french fries just like McDonald's would. The old-fashioned way using beef tallow, and then they made a precise replica of the modern fries, and we did a blind taste test. It's no contest. I mean, it's like you're eating two completely different foodstuffs. It's phenomenal. It blows my mind that McDonald's would do this. So they know it better than anyone what they had to give up when they shifted from beef tallow. They were throwing away the franchise. And they must have done taste tests. And they must have said, “Oh my God, we're taking something that's an A+ and we're taking it down to a B-, and even though our brand and our livelihood depends on this food item, we're going to throw it away.”

House: This is basically a cost-benefit analysis, right?

Gladwell: I think they were—there was a time of real hysteria about saturated fat, and they thought that fast food would be doomed unless it donned the cloak of good nutrition. Even though that's absurd. I mean, it's a french fry. It's never going to be a healthy product. And it turns out to be false that vegetable oil is healthier for you than beef tallow. That's also wrong. So not only did they destroy the french fry, they gave us something that was worse for us from a health perspective. So everything about it was a mistake. If they had any balls at all, they would turn around and say, “We were wrong, and we're going back to fries the old way.”