Will we ever go back to fat?

Reader Samantha asks:

Why is shortening used over lard as a solid fat in commercially made products? Is it the cost?

Goodness gracious, Samantha, is that ever a great question. If only I had some of my former clients from McDonald’s corporate headquarters here to help me answer it. For as you may know, up until 1990 McDonald’s fried its legendary French fries in beef tallow (fat). That was the year when they finally succumbed to public pressure, whipped up by groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to change over to vegetable shortening, which was supposed to be better for us.

In those days the folks at CSPI were big boosters of trans fats. Ironically, these were the very same people who, some 15 years later, were threatening lawsuits against fast food chains like KFC for their use of vegetable shortening, causing a huge spike in rentals of the Woody Allen movie Sleeper.

In response big commodity food producers like Cargill shifted into high gear developing trans-free shortenings, which began hitting the industrial market in 2006. Problem solved. Though interestingly that was the very same year that the results of the Women’s Health Initiative were released. If you don’t remember what that is, it was the landmark $415 million, 50,000-subject study that found no connection between the intake of fats — any kinds of fats — and the incidence of maladies like heart disease or cancer. More on that here.

In the years since, as the results of the WHI have begun to slowly sink in among foodies and others, there’s been an increasing drumbeat to return to conventional fats — partly, to restore the legendary McDonald’s fry! However the big producers that supplied all that beef fat to McDonald’s (and others) are long since gone. That or they repurposed their infrastructure for other sorts of products. Thus with mass production gone, prices are up. So no one’s using beef fat on a commercial scale anymore. So yes, Samantha, the basic reason you don’t see it is cost.

It’s a similar state of affairs with pig fat (lard). Fifty years ago livestock breeders still raised so-called “lard pigs” to supply our society not just with meat, but with cooking fat. Those days are gone also. So, barring a big change in attitudes we won’t be raising much lard, much less consuming it.

All of which is not to say we can’t eventually get back to the days of using animal fats to fry with, it’ll just take a while. Public demand will have to grow to the point that bigger producers will perceive a profit in that business. Personally I don’t see it happening, but who knows? The pendulum is swinging back to some extent now, we’ll just have to see how far it goes. Someone once observed that the U.S. Defense Department can’t stop making battleships for a year, for if we did we wouldn’t be able to start again for twenty years. Who knew the same thing was true of animal-based frying fats? Thanks for the question, Samantha!

20 thoughts on “Will we ever go back to fat?”

  1. OMG! It’s been years since I’ve had fast food BUT I have a sense memory of those Mickey D fries — I still think of them as frites because I never had anything better when I lived in France — that I hope will last forever.

    I also have jars of bacon fat and beef fat in my fridge along with the precious little containers of duck fat that I have to actually buy from Whole Foods. I feel guilty as hell using them but there are delicious simple things like Mexican rice, homefries and homemade hash from the roast leftovers that simply aren’t the same with the nice “healthy” fats. Also, if you do your Christmas roast at long low temps á la Shirley O. Chorriher (as you certainly should) you’re going to find that you can’t make the Yorkshire Pudding unless you’ve been diligent enough to put some beef fat aside in advance. So don’t throw that free yummy stuff away!

    1. Good tip, Rainey!

      And yes, you can get duck fat in come places now. In my old Chicago hood there was/is a hot dog shrine called Hot Doug’s. A few years ago they started doing their fries in duck fat on Saturdays. The line was literally down the block. Now there are even restaurants in Louisville that do fries in duck fat. Who knows? Happy days may be here again soon!

      – Joe

  2. This was very interesting to read as the trans-fat movement hit Latvia in a little bit different way. It was wild 90-ies, after collapse of Soviet Union, and when economics started to recover from crisis, processed food from West overflooded shelfs of stores. How excited we were! Look, all in shiny and colourful packaging! Look, this margarine is like butter, it doesn’t get solid in fridge and doesn’t get spoiled even after a month in room temperature! Margarine was especially a miracle as the Soviet margarine was cheap, disgusting, white mass packaged in parchment paper, used only by the poorest ones (or those who had not time to stand in hours-long queues to buy butter). At the same time, doctors in newspapers and magazines started to frighten readers about cholesterine level in blood which was thought to be increased by butter and egg intake. As a result, everyone embraced margarine – so butter-like on slice of bread, yet healthy (if you didn’t read the contents on package). Another thing was liquid oils – in Soviet time we knew only sunflower oil, mostly unrefined and with strong odour. Therefore lard was widely used for cooking (my grandmother’s crepes were so tasty, and she used lard!) as it has less odour if well rendered. In 90-ies vegetable oil was considered ultimately healthy (though it was the cheap one, combined from leftovers and refined, as we realise it now) because it doesn’t contain the evil cholesterol.

    So, that was how it went for a good decade or more, until we started to learn about newest discoveries in food science and got access to better food (mostly due to economic growth and spread of information through Internet). Now it’s going towards more “natural” and “local” approach, at least for those who can afford fat that is not the cheapest vegetable oil (which unfortunately is the case for a big part of population).

    Sorry for long comment, mentioning lard in cooking just made me remember granny’s crepes and the time she was baking them for me 🙂

    1. What I wouldn’t give for a taste of those crepes! Thank you, Antuanete, for the thoughtful comment and the history lesson!


      – Joe

  3. I seem to remember that the McDonald’s issue was not (or not only) a health issue. They claimed that their French fries were cooked in vegetable oil, but the oil actually contained beef tallow. As a result many people, who were vegetarian for whatever reason, ate the French fries assuming they contained no meat. At some stage the beef tallow ingredient was uncovered. So the point of contention was the deception.

    1. Hey there!

      That controversy was well after they made the switch. There was no beef fat in the shortening, but there were flavors in the shortening that were derived from beef (they were trying to approximate the beef tallow flavor, after all). That’s what caused the flap. It was a teensy tiny additive from the standpoint of total volume, but it understandably got some people upset. McDonald’s did list the ingredients of the fries in their literature (potatoes and salt). It simply didn’t didn’t occur to them that the cooking medium was an ingredient. Some people saw that as a conspiracy and/or dishonest. A simple screwup is what it really was.

      – Joe

  4. I have to say that the lard I recently bought for my deep fryer was bloody expensive. About $4 per 500g, and I needed about 2kg. Vegetable oil is much cheaper. The difference in crispiness on doughnuts made it worth while though – so long as I can re-use it a number of times.
    Pigs are so lean these days I suppose there’s not a lot of fat to be had from them.

    1. I can believe that, and I think your reasoning is absolutely right. I myself am fortunate to live in Kentucky where pork products are abundant. Still a five pound tub costs over ten dollars. It shouldn’t be that way!

      – Joe

  5. Thanks for addressing my question.
    I don’t deep fry things at home, but I do like using lard in making pie crust or pastry. It’s relatively easy to find here in Canada and costs about the same price as butter.

    1. My pleasure, Samantha! That’s pretty much what I do with lard, but sometimes I’ll fry in it…just for a thrill!


      – Joe

  6. i understand the sentiment, but as someone who’s muslim and follows ‘orthodox’ eating (similar to kosher) of meat, i’d rather big manufacturing stay away from meat by-products in otherwise meatless foods! i know it tastes good- i’m a big meat eater. but i think in a world where diversity is increasing (hopefully) and not decreasing, we’d be hard pressed to ignore all the vegetarians/orthodox muslims & jews/vegans…etc. when it came to mainstream food. not that we can cater to all, certainly, but it’s about money, and making the most from the most people- hence, not alienating those pesky (jk) minorities who are also paying customers. i can see why mcdonald’s made the switch (even if the misunderstanding on the part of the consumer came well after the face) and why they’ll probably stick with it.

    1. Hi Yasmin!

      Thanks for the comment. McDonald’s does different things in different markets. They make mutton burgers in aindia, for example. So you never know…they try to cater to the tastes of their customers! Cheers,

      – Joe

  7. “So no one’s using beef fat on a commercial scale anymore. ”

    Popeyes uses “Miniat All Fry” which is a beef tallow based frying fat.

    Ed Miniat, Inc (Chicago, IL) –reputedly– was the supplier to Ray Kroc’s original Chicago McDonald’s restaurant and was a substantial supplier from that time forward.

    Incidentally, Devil Dawgs at 2147 North Sheffield Avenue Chicago, IL 60614 fries in Miniat All Fry and has been voted at the best hot dog in Chicago (for what that’s worth)

    I personally know several restaurants that do french fries in beef tallow.
    The tallow comes in 30 pound blocks wrapped simply in plain heavy wax paper. If stored in a relatively cool odor free place, the blocks do not require refrigeration.
    The downside to tallow is the short life in the fryer and the extended time each morning to get electric fryers up to temp because tallow is solid.

  8. Hi Joe – as always a great list of topics and comments. I have to mention that I think you are a great writer as well as top Chef. I enjoy your posts for the information but enjoy them most when I find myself smiling or out and out laughing at your sudden wit! Love when that happens! Anyway, I wanted to bring up Leaf lard which is supposed to better for you than regular lard because it is taken from around the kidneys and contains no trans fats. I’m not sure that is true but it is what I have read. I bought some at New Yorks Union Square Farmers Market once and spent 4 hours rendering it with a fan blowing the steam and odor out the window of my small apt. The result was a bit too “porky and protein” in flavor for me when used in the Blueberry Pie that I made unfortunately. It probably would have worked in a sweet Pecan or Syrup Pie or a savory pie much better. I have to say though that the flaky-ness was like nothing I have ever seen. Billions and billions of shiny teeny tiny slivers of tender flaky pie crust broke as I cut into each piece. It was the most amazing crust that I have ever seen. I wish that I could get that result from something else but I have never seen anything duplicate that.

    1. Hey Andy! Love those comments…thanks very much for that. I have as much as I possible can doing this. Spontaneous wise cracks are a big part of who I am I guess…for good or ill!

      Regarding the lard, I can understand your feelings about the flavors. It’s funny, here in the Midwest it’s not unusual to meet someone who’s never eaten a pie that didn’t have a lard crust. Butter? Shortening? Really??? I guess what I’m saying is that it’s all what you’re accustomed to. Try cutting the lard with half butter for your crusts or biscuits. That will give you more of the flavor you expect with the flakiness you want.

      Regarding trans fats, I don’t think it’s true that leaf lard has fewer trans fats. In fact I don’t think it’s true that animal fats have trans fats, at least not in any significant amount. Ruminant milk is a different matter. Cows, sheep, giraffes, etc…their milk fat is about 5% trans fat.

      Thanks for the terrific — and very generous — comment!

      – Joe

  9. I remember 1983 as being the year that the taste of McDonald’s French fries changed. To be honest, I haven’t eaten fries much since then (and I am familiar with the whole saturated vs. trans controversy involving the CSPI…!). I remember my mother cooking with the old Crisco white lard back in the late ’60s & ’70s (those were the days!). Just wondering, are there any restaurants left where you can get the old ‘original’ French fry taste? I’d love to have some of those again! That actually reminds me of a whole list of foods that don’t taste like they used to anymore (to start with, frozen pizzas, like Tony’s…).

    1. Hey Jett!

      Good question. I don’t think there are any quick-service-type restaurants that make fries with beef tallow anymore (that was McDonald’s original fry medium). The company that supplied that fat is now out of business for reasons that are probably all-to-obvious. However you can still make your own fries that way. You know it would be really fun to have a tutorial on fries like that. I think I’ll do that as soon as I can find a quantity of rendered beef fat. Thanks for the idea!

      Otherwise I think it’s catch-as-catch-can for this kind of thing. There are probably some independent restaurants out there that fry in beef tallow, but you’d have to find them!

      Thanks, Jett!

      – Joe

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