May 3, 2006 -- It was a big day in fast-food news. First, soda makers announced they would reduce the amount of calories in products that are sold in schools. Then Frito-Lay Inc. announced that its two top-grossing brands of chips -- Lays and Ruffles -- would be prepared with NuSun sunflower oil rather than cottonseed oil.
The oil switch will reduce the amount of artery-clogging saturated fat in the chips by more than 50 percent, but it will not reduce the amount of calories by very much. A one-ounce serving of Lays Classic Potato Chips has 150 calories and 10 grams of fat (1 gram is saturated -- it was previously 3 grams).
"Health and wellness are driving consumers, and we are committed to health and wellness and saw the opportunity to take our largest brand and make a significant health benefit," said company spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez, explaining the motivation for the move.
Oils, which give food a rich flavor and texture, are made of several kinds of fatty acids -- mostly saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Saturated fat increases cholesterol production in the body, a known risk factor for heart disease. Sunflower oil has less than half as much saturated fat as cottonseed oil.
But, while they may be better for the heart, the new chips won't do much for the waistline, health experts said.
"The chips will still have the same number of calories, as all oils are the same," said Carla Wolper, a dietitian at Columbia University in New York.
'Keep It in Perspective'
Other experts echoed her sentiment.
"Sunflower oil is a great choice, but at the end of the day, we're still talking chips here, so let's keep it in perspective," said Keith Ayoob, a dietitian at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.
In other words: The announcement is not a green light to indulge even more on these snacks.
The change "doesn't mean that chips are good for you, only that they are less bad," said Dr. Jane Klauer at the Obesity Research Center at St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital in New York. "Snack foods are a billion-dollar business that does little good for our health. A better snack is a piece of fruit."
While the overall benefit of the change may be modest, Yale University psychologist Kelly D. Brownell called Frito Lay's announcement courageous.
"[It's] exactly the right thing to do. Reformulation of foods is, I believe, one of the single most beneficial things the industry can do. Millions of people can be affected instantly," he said.
For die-hard potato chip consumers, Frito-Lay said that taste tests have been successful and that the chips still have "that same irresistible taste."
There will be no difference in price for consumers, but the company said the move has cost millions to accomplish.
Dr. Khama Ennis-Holcomb is an emergency medicine resident at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's Hospitals in Boston.