While many of America's biggest food manufacturers and supermarket chains are busily replacing trans fats with more healthful substitutes, the biggest restaurant chains are still frying French fries, chicken nuggets, and other fast foods in trans-fat-laden, heart-attack-inducing partially hydrogenated oils, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Trans-fat labeling on packaged foods becomes mandatory on January 1, 2006. That approaching deadline has been a powerful incentive for supermarkets and food manufacturers to switch to healthier oils, but CSPI found that the lack of any nutrition labeling or disclosure requirements for restaurant chains has caused them to lag far behind.
While several major restaurant chains, including Yum! Brands, corporate parent of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, told CSPI they are testing healthier oils, only a few chains have already taken action. They include:
• Au Bon Pain, a 220-location caf chain based in Boston, has eliminated trans fat from all of its cookies, bagels, and muffins, and is now using a non-hydrogenated margarine;
• Jason's Deli, a 137-outlet sandwich and salad chain, has stopped using partially hydrogenated oils in all of its products;
• Panera Bread, a 773-outlet caf chain that was formerly part of Au Bon Pain, is in the process of replacing all partially hydrogenated oils and plans to be trans-free by year's end;
• California Pizza Kitchen has removed trans fat from deep-fried foods and is working on eliminating it from all other foods.
Last year, Ruby Tuesday, with some 700 table-service restaurants around the country, began deep-frying in heart-healthy canola oil, though its suppliers still par-fry some items in partially hydrogenated oil.
Chik-fil-A fries in peanut oil in its outlets, though its suppliers also par-fry French fries in partially hydrogenated oil.
Among companies that responded to CSPI, Starbucks, ice-cream chain Friendly, and fried-chicken chain Popeyes indicated they had no plans to remove or reduce trans fat in their foods.
In 2002, McDonald's famously promised to reduce and ultimately eliminate the trans fat in its cooking oil, but in 2003 it quietly retreated from its pledge. McDonald's settled a lawsuit against it on the matter by giving $7 million to the American Heart Association and by promising to spend more money informing its customers about the "delay."
Although McDonald's has reformulated Chicken McNuggets and a few other products to have a little less trans fat, its fried foods are still very high in trans fats overall.
A meal including a 5-piece Chicken Selects and a medium order of French fries has about 9.5 grams of trans fat -- five days' worth of trans fat if one were following the recommendations of the government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
McDonald's outlets in Australia, Denmark, and Israel all fry in trans-free oil.
Meals at other restaurants also are loaded with trans fat. KFC's Chicken Pot Pie contains 14 grams of trans, and Taco Bell's Nachos BellGrande has seven grams.
"Selling food cooked in or with partially hydrogenated oils is like selling a car without seat belts," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Partially hydrogenated oil causes thousands of avoidable premature deaths, and the restaurant industry's reluctance to change is absolutely reckless."
Processed food manufacturers have made much more progress than restaurant chains. According to CSPI's survey, seven of the 10 top-selling cracker brands have been reformulated to contain zero grams of trans fat per serving. (CSPI warns, however, that the FDA lets companies treat amounts of trans under half a gram per serving as zero. Someone eating several servings of foods that contain just less than half a gram of trans could easily reach their daily limit without knowing it.)
Food manufacturers making headway on trans fat include:
• Kraft has eliminated most or all trans fat from Triscuts, Wheat Thins, Chips Ahoy, Mallomars, Reduced Fat Oreos, Boca products, Honey Maid low fat Cinnamon Grahams, SnackWell's Cracked Pepper crackers, and other products;
• Gorton's has replaced partially hydrogenated oils with healthier oils in its entire line of fish sticks and fillets;
• George Weston Bakeries plans to eliminate trans fat in all Entenmann's and Freihofer cake and danish products;
• McCain now uses canola oil for all of its grocery and retail frozen potatoes and one line of its food-service French fries.
Supermarket chains are also making progress, according to CSPI.
Whole Foods has never sold foods with partially hydrogenated oil, and nine of 11 chains that responded to CSPI's queries say they have already made changes or plan to do so for their store-brand products.
Wegman's has been making gradual changes for years; the Raley's and Giant chains have asked suppliers to make changes and have switched to trans-free McCain for store-brand frozen French-fries.
"Including trans fat on food labels has had a much greater positive effect that most people imagined," said Jacobson. "Nevertheless, the federal government should do what several Denmark has done, and actually require companies, including restaurants, to send partially hydrogenated oils down the garbage disposal of history."
Denmark limits trans fat to 2 percent of the fat or oil content of foods.
Although small amounts of trans fat occur in meat and dairy foods, 80 percent of trans fat in the diet comes from partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fat is the most harmful of fats in the food supply, since it both raises LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and lowers HDL, or "good" cholesterol. Dr. Walter C. Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and his colleagues estimate that trans fat in food causes at least 30,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year.
Although CSPI has been aggressively urging food companies to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils, the group does not want companies to switch to palm oil.
That oil is generally produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, where oil palm plantations have replaced rainforest teeming with orangutans, tigers, and other endangered species. Moreover, it promotes heart disease, though not to the same extent as the typical partially hydrogenated oil.
CSPI's survey included 38 major food manufacturers, 100 restaurant chains, and 25 supermarket chains.
Restaurants Still Pouring on the Trans Fats...