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McDonald’s is not lovin’ GMO potato

Dan Weissmann Nov 20, 2014

The United States Department of Agriculture has approved a new genetically modified potato.

Among other things, the new spud is supposed to give off fewer carcinogens when cooked at high temperatures, like when it’s french-fried. Still, its biggest potential customer, McDonald’s, is not lovin’ it.  The burger-and-fries giant seems to be listening to the many consumers out there who worry GMOs are bad for them.  Never mind the Big Mac itself. 

New York University food researcher Marion Nestle has seen this kind of thing before in England. Supermarket chains opted out of carrying tomato paste made from genetically modified tomatoes.

“The retailers said, ‘You know, we don’t have a dog in this fight. We don’t need to be in the middle of this,'” Nestle says. “Similarly, McDonald’s has plenty of potatoes.”

So the company doesn’t need these new potatoes, just like it doesn’t need any new grief from consumers about serving unhealthy food.

Meanwhile, consumer attitudes have changed regarding what makes food healthy or not. Analyst Harry Balzer has been tracking Americans’ eating habits for decades, at consumer-research company NPD.

“I think the move is to, ‘I want natural foods’ — whatever natural, means to you,” he says. “Now, I think part of that process is, ‘I don’t want you to make my foods better for me. So, don’t remove the fat, don’t remove the sugar. That way you’re changing the food — you’re altering the food.’”

Sales of foods designed to be healthy — lower in fat, or lower in sugar — have been declining for years, Balzer says.

He also points out that the three most-ordered items at restaurants are still soda, a burger and fries.

But even if that’s what we’re ordering, health is still — well, call it an aspiration.

Mary Chapman is with the food-industry consulting group Technomic, which polls consumers about their preferences. “We asked specifically, ‘Do you want restaurants to offer healthy items, even if you’re not going to eat them?'” she says. “They still want them offered.”

So is it the presence of the salad on the menu that makes us feel better about the Big Mac that we’re actually ordering?

“It’s true,” she says.

As long as the salad isn’t genetically modified.

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