Have it the Healthier Way: Burger King Reveals Low-Fat Satisfries

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Noel Barnhurst

We tasted them, and you may not miss the 40% fat and 30% calories stripped from the spuds.

When I was invited to taste test Satisfries, I was skeptical. A healthier fry? (The company is very careful not to say that their latest spuds are healthy, just healthier than the regular version.) Frying up anything isn’t the best way to make them good for you, and fries are sacred in that regard. So I was curious, but realistic.

The hotel rooftop for the french fry unveiling was decked out with Burger King crowns (but no King) and large-than-life cutouts of fries–and plenty of ketchup, which made me a little wary about just how appetizing this next generation fried potato would be. As soon as we were seated, Burger King’s North American CMO Eric Hirschhorn informed us that Burger King is rolling out a better-for-you fry.

(MORE: Don’t Be So Quick to Shun the French Fry)

So the next time you’re at a Burger King and asked ‘Do you want fries with that?’ you might feel a little less guilty about saying yes. Just over half of the the fast food chain’s 100 million monthly customers orders fries. And while most of them aren’t expecting to get a health boost from their meal, heightened awareness about diets and nutrition, and the role that fried foods play in obesity, are starting to weigh on customers’ choices. And the fast food industry is aware of changing dietary demands too. It’s not entirely realistic to expect a healthy, nutritious meal delivered at a fast food counter, but it does makes sense that their menu developers start listening to what people want.

“We couldn’t not address these changes,” says Hirschhorn. “We decided to meet people halfway.”

That’s why quick service restaurants are all offering healthier fare. There is a grilled chicken option for nearly every fried item, and salads freshen up the menu boards of all fast food chains now. But it turns out visitors to these restaurants want only one thing — the food that made these chains so popular in the first place — burgers, fries and shakes.

(MORE: Forget the Food: Fast Food Ads Aimed at Kids Feature Lots of Giveaways)

So Hirschhorn says that when he and his team decided to adapt their menu, they turned away from adding another healthy item (which past history showed most of their customers don’t order) and focused their attention on re-fashioning their tried and true staples. And where better to start than with the beloved fry?

The SatisFry looks and tastes just like the chain’s regular crinkle fries. They are battered and deep fried in vegetable oil, and they maintain that distinct Burger King flavor (If you’re a fast food fry aficionado, you know what that means). But here’s the secret — they don’t absorb as much fat from their deep-fried bath. When I peeked inside my fry carton, I was surprised to see few grease stains and very little soggy cardboard.

(MORE: Nutrition at Fast Food Restaurants Still Leaves Much to be Desired)

It’s important to note that although Burger King cleaned up its recipe with the oil-shunning batter, a fry is still a fry. Which is why the company says it will not be promoting Satisfries as a healthy food. “Baking fries lacks attributes like the crunchiness,” says Hirschhorn explaining why they didn’t want to change ingredients or process. “Fries are still indulgent, [and] these taste great. It’s the small changes.”

Getting people to eat healthier food at fast food joints is a major challenge for the industry. Burger King’s market research, for example, showed that people who walk into a restaurant intending to order grilled chicken change their minds at the register and consistently order fried. “We know that attitudes are changing and our consumers are becoming more mindful of the foods that they eat. But changing attitudes is much different than changing behavior. We have seen time and time again that consumers don’t want to sacrifice the foods that they love,” says Hirschhorn. “We set out to introduce a great tasting french fry with all the french fry attributes that people expect – crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.”

Satisfries are made with the same oil and equipment as the traditional french fries, and, not surprisingly, Burger King won’t reveal the oil-repelling agent responsible. But we consulted some food science experts who say that lowering fat content in fried food is more an engineering trick than a nutritional one.

(MORE: Why French Fries Are Such Good Comfort Food)

“There are several patents out there now. It’s actually kind of an old technology,” says Mary Ellen Camire, the president-elect of the Institute of Food Technologists of the fat-fighting batter technique.

Adding modified starches to the surface of foods like potato chips, or adding ingredients to wet batters like proteins, gellan gum, methylcellulose and hydroxypropylmethyl cellulose and soy and pea flours, are well known ways to make fried foods less absorbant.

The challenge however, is in maintaining the taste of the deep-fried food. “I always wonder how good they are going to taste. Because when the fat goes in, the water goes out. That’s how you get the crispiness. So different products vary in how well they still maintain taste,” says Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine.

(MORE: A Heart-Healthier Way to Eat Fried Food?)

Camire says many fast food industry efforts to lower fat content costs them customers because the loss of fat leads to loss of taste or texture or both. “The big concern is, will consumers notice a difference? People have an expectation for a certain fast food chain fry,” she says. “Fried foods are a part of the international cuisine. There is something people like about that crispy golden brown fat. Trying to keep that while making it lower fat is really a challenge. You can make it, but you may trade off for what you want to have in terms of quality.”

The Satisfry seems to have overcome the taste hurdle. And the timing couldn’t be better for Burger King, since the U.S Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is requiring restaurant chains with over 20 locations in the U.S. to post calorie counts on their menus by 2014. The company’s execs deny that’s the reason they’re releasing the new fry line, pointing out that since the fries absorb less oil, the company will save on oil costs.

I don’t claim to be a french fry connoisseur, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the SatisFries and the regular fries I remember. (Oh, did I forget to mention that the taste test did not include a head-to-head comparison with the full fat version?) For a while, you’ll be able to choose between the Burger King fries you’re used to and the new version. But if the Satisfries take off, the same batter may find its way to their other fried fare.

Satisfries Nutrition info: 190 calories, 8 grams of fat and 210 milligrams of sodium per value-size serving.