WASHINGTON - December 29 - Top restaurant chains, which had been lagging far behind food manufacturers in getting rid of artificial trans fat, are finally beginning to replace partially hydrogenated oils with healthier alternatives—both for deep-frying and other applications, according to an analysis conducted by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Wendy’s, the fifth-largest restaurant chain, switched to heart-healthy trans-free frying oils earlier this year, and KFC and Taco Bell, the second- and seventh-largest chains, have pledged to largely eliminate trans fat from most of their foods by next spring. Pizza Hut, the fourth-largest chain and, like KFC, a Yum! Brands restaurant, claims it’s working on getting rid of trans (it’s nearly there, partly because pizzas have little or no trans fat). The sixth-largest chain, Subway, never had much to begin with, but got trans fat out of its cookies this year. Eighth-largest Domino’s Pizza is mostly trans-fat-free, though an
ill-conceived “garlic dipping sauce” with seven grams of trans fat is clearly made with partially hydrogenated oil.
Two of the biggest chains, dozens of medium-sized chains, and thousands of other food-service establishments show no sign of switching, according to CSPI, which says government at all levels should push for elimination of artificial trans fat.
McDonald’s, the biggest chain, has been under the gun after breaking its 2002 commitment to switch to healthier oils, but now says that it has a large-scale test market under way. It has switched to canola or other trans-free oils in much of Europe, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Its Chicken McNuggets were reformulated to have less trans fat. But its Chicken Selects Premium Breast Strips—a product with a healthier sounding name—actually has more: A 5-piece order has four grams. With a large order of McDonald’s fries, that meal would have 12 grams of trans fat—more trans than a person should consume in six days, according to the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
Burger King, the third-largest chain, serves up trans-free fries, but to get them you’ll have to go to Denmark—which virtually banned artificial trans fat two years ago. It says it has begun testing new oils in the United States. Burger King’s Chicken Tenders have less trans fat that McDonald’s Chicken Selects, but its fries have roughly the same amount.
“When trans fat labeling went into effect in the supermarket, large food manufacturers competed against each other to see who could get rid of artificial trans fat the fastest,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But restaurants didn’t have labeling as an incentive to change, so they’ve needed other incentives: a lawsuit here, a municipal phase-out proposal there.”
Starbucks (ninth largest) removed trans fat from the one drink that had it and has announced that trans fat will be kept out of seasonal baked goods, though it remains—in high amounts—in some pastries in many stores. Starbucks uses regional bakers whose recipes may vary, so a scone might have zero to four grams of trans fat; some glazed donuts have five grams of trans; some cinnamon rolls have nine grams.
Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, number 10, claims it’s making progress on trans fat. The company says its new menu items are trans-fat-free and that two-thirds of its bakery and bread products are trans-fat-free, but its progress is hard to monitor, since of the top 10 restaurant chains, Applebee’s puts the least amount of nutrition information on its web site.
New York City made history this month by becoming the first U.S. jurisdiction to require restaurants to stop using artificial trans fat by mid 2008. McDonald’s and other top chains have said they’ll be able to comply by then, and the city’s Board of Health will work to educate smaller non-chain restaurants about trans-free fats and oils. In media reports, some smaller restaurateurs have expressed confusion, incorrectly assuming that lard would be excluded by the regulation when it wouldn’t be. Only artificial trans fat—found exclusively in partially hydrogenated oil—would be eliminated. Lard is trans-fat free, and the small amounts of trans-fat in butter, meat or dairy products are not at all affected by New York City’s proposal.
Some of the other large restaurant chains that have switched or or are in the process of switching to trans-fat-free vegetable oil for deep frying include Arby’s, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Denny’s, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Many small ethnic restaurants, diners, and gourmet restaurants have used healthy oils for frying for years, including New York City’s legendary Carnegie Deli, soul food restaurant Sylvia’s and Chicago’s Ina’s Kitchen. Other venues, including Disney theme parks, Loews hotels, and numerous local restaurants and small chains, are eliminating trans fat.
Bills to limit artificial trans fat have also been introduced in Chicago, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, and officials in Boston, Cambridge, Mass., Cleveland, Louisville (home to Yum! Brands), Los Angeles, and other cities and states have expressed interest in similar regulations. CSPI petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to revoke its acceptance of partially hydrogenated oil as being “generally recognized as safe,” but the agency has not yet taken action. The FDA recently rejected a second CSPI petition that called on the agency to require restaurants to post signs indicating the presence of trans fat. CSPI helped further a trans-fat-free future when, in June, it sued KFC for its use of partially hydrogenated oil. CSPI withdrew from the suit after KFC’s recent announcement that it would switch to non-hydrogenated low-linolenic soybean oil for deep-frying. Further lawsuits are a possibility, according to CSPI.
Fortunately, says CSPI, farmers and major edible-oil producers are responding to the growing market for trans-fat-free frying oils. Canola oil, corn oil, peanut oil, and soybean oil are all perfectly suited to deep-frying. A new kind of soybean oil with lower levels of linolenic acid and a canola oil high in oleic acid are also proving to be popular substitutes for partially hydrogenated oil. While some opponents of trans-fat regulations have raised the specter of products becoming higher in saturated fat, most reformulated products actually have a much better fat profile over all. But even in those cases where a gram of trans fat is replaced with a gram of saturated fat, there is a net-plus health benefit.
“2007 may well be remembered as the year that partially hydrogenated oil was dispatched to that great big compost heap in the sky,” said Jacobson. “But, considering the inactive Food and Drug Administration, it will surely take more lawsuits and more major cities instituting bans before Americans can say ‘sayonara’ to artificial trans fat for good.”