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Wendy's Natural Cut Fries: Better Tasting, Yes. Natural, No

When Wendy's (WEN) created its Natural Cut Fries With Sea Salt, which it introduced last fall and is now promoting in new TV ads this week, the company's product development team found a way to leave the potato skins on, make the fries crispier and give them a much tastier flavor. What they didn't manage to do, however, is make the fries an actual all-natural product. That, says CMO Ken Calwell, would be too difficult given fast food customers' demands for items that are cheap and can be hoisted through a car window.

"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," Calwell explained in an interview with BNET. "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."

So instead of going the more expensive Five Guys route of making their fries fresh and in-house, Wendy's settled for "natural cut." What this means is that inside the processing plant, the potatoes skip the step of getting steamed at such a high temperature that the skins burst off. Wendy's spuds go straight to the high tech cutters where they're sliced.

And then the not-so-natural part
Then come the not-so-natural parts. Wendy's adds dextrose, a sugar derived from corn, and sodium acid pyrophosphate, a chemical that prevents the fries from turning brown from two baths in frying oil -- one at the factory and the other at the store. For comparison, Five Guy's fries don't need sodium acid pyrophosphate or dextrose because they're only fried once and aren't frozen.

And just like every other large fast food chain, including Five Guys, Wendy's frying oil is dosed with dimethylpolysiloxane, a silicone-based chemical that helps keep the vegetable oil from getting foamy after countless rounds of frying. Wendy's Natural Cut fries are also frozen like everybody else's, even though it's a big point of distinction for Wendy's that their hamburgers aren't.

Wendy's has also highlighted that it uses "100% Russet potatoes", but John Keeling of the National Potato Council says that this is not a selling point. "Virtually all processed French fries are Russets," he said in an email.

Taste and compare
But the new fries do succeed in taste tests, even beating those at McDonald's, according to the company's research. Wendy's hired an outside firm to do a national taste test and the results showed that 56% of people taking the test chose Wendy's skin-on fries, whereas only 39% preferred McDonald's (4% had no preference). And Wendy's 6,600 stores, orders that include fries are up almost 10%.

Nutritionally, the skins on the fries add 1 extra gram of fiber per serving for a total of 6 grams in a medium. Although the sodium content went up by 43% to 500 milligrams for a medium, an increase that no doubt helps with the taste factor.

Calwell says that making Wendy's menu items more natural and more real is the company's "North Star".

"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," he said.

Image from Wendy's
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