By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Americans and Canadians eat about 11 billion pounds of fries every year. And most of those fries take a dip in a product created in Minnesota, perfected in a nondescript office building in west suburban Plymouth.

“I just love that sound, you hear the sizzling of the French fry and crisping up,” said Lorin DeBonte, the frying oil expert at Twin Cities-based global agribusiness company, Cargill.

DeBonte gave WCCO’s Jason DeRusha a rare look inside the company’s North American Food Innovation Center.

Cargill creates oils for all of the big restaurants and all the types of fries: from traditional thin-cut fries like you’d see at McDonald’s, Burger King and Dairy Queen, to the waffle fries of Chik-Fil-A, and the curly fries of Arby’s and Hardees.

(credit: CBS)

As leader of a team working on oils, DeBonte is in the lab, in the farm field, but also in the restaurants.

“So we’re in there with them, frying, watching, teaching them about skimming the oil. How do we clean the top of the oil?” he said.

Most of us think oil is oil, that there’s nothing all that different about one oil from the other.

“Yes, oil is a heating medium to cook the products, but it delivers a lot more than that,” DeBonte said.

Oil impacts the crispness, the color, and the taste of the French fries. To demonstrate, Cargill fired up fryers with three different types of oil: a solid tallow product made from beef fat, soybean oil, and a canola oil called Clear Valley 65.

Soybean oil is popular in parts of Asia: the fry was crunchy, crispy with a creamy potato inside, but the hint of beany-flavor was present.

Tallow is popular in Mexico and South America, and carried a strong beef aroma and an intense flavor.

And the canola oil was completely different: very clean, crisp, almost neutral, letting the potato flavor of the fry shine.

“We’re managing the quality of the oil as it comes off the farm. We know what it looks like so we can create the right blend combinations for our customers,” DeBonte said.

From the farm to the lab, DeBonte’s team has worked to cut canola’s saturated fats. They do that while trying to balance competing concerns: nutrition, cost, shelf life, and taste.

“We reduced saturates by 35%. Canola was already the lowest at 7% and we’ve taken it down to 4%,” DeBonte said.

Different parts of the world have different needs, palm oil in the Middle East and Malaysia, soybean in China, canola in the U.S. There are trends in oil — some chefs like to mix in a little olive oil or avocado oil. But availability of soybean (90 million acres in North America), canola (25 million acres) and corn oil (80 million acres) make those three the kings.

“We’re working with a new formulation for Canada, right now, trying to get what the customer needs,” DeBonte said.

The process is a blend of science and art, all designed to work best for the restaurants and taste best for all of us.

“We do a lot of measurements of oil. At the end of the day, what does it taste like, what does it feel like when you bite down on it, and that’s what keeps customers coming back,” he said.

Jason DeRusha