February 2009 Issue

A Burger and Fries (Hold the Trans Fats) - Restaurants Respond to Demand for Healthier Oils
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 2 P. 36

Restaurants across the United States have been slowly making progress toward eliminating trans fats from their menus. Cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston have already placed a ban on the use of these fats in restaurants, while California recently became the first to introduce a statewide ban. It’s expected that such bans will continue across the country as consumers begin to recognize the importance of eliminating dangerous trans fats from their diets and demand a change in what restaurants are serving up.

“When California’s Gov Schwarzenegger signed the bill banning trans fats as of January 1, 2010, I think restaurants got the message loud and clear that this change will most likely spread nationwide quickly,” suggests Joanne “Dr. Jo” Lichten, PhD, RD, creator of Dr. Jo’s Eat Out & Lose Weight Plan.

Trans fats are formed when liquid oils are converted into solid fat through hydrogenation. Consuming trans fats can lead to heart disease by raising LDL cholesterol and simultaneously lowering HDL cholesterol. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 estimated that approximately 228,000 coronary heart disease occurrences could be avoided by reducing trans fat consumption or eliminating these fats from the American diet. Unfortunately, many popular foods contain them, and many Americans consume these foods in excess. The FDA estimates that the average American consumes approximately 4.7 pounds of trans fats every year.

Trans fats are especially common in baked goods, as they aid with preservation. “I tell my clients that trans fats are essentially a man-made fat,” says Sara Shama, RD, director of nutrition for Kingley Health in New Jersey. “It helps Twinkies stay on the shelf for six years without going bad. Baked goods are supposed to go bad!”

Stephanie Dean, RD, LD, coauthor of the book Fit to Serve, adds, “While trans fats were created to increase the shelf life of foods, consumers can increase their own ‘shelf life’ by eliminating trans fats from their diets.”

A Change for the Better
Fortunately, many restaurants and chains across the country are making changes—even if they aren’t located in a city with a ban. The Cheesecake Factory was one of the leaders pioneering these changes in the industry. “Nearly two years ago, our management team and kitchen staff began partnering with our foodservice manufacturers to work toward the elimination of trans fats from our menu,” says Mark Mears, senior vice president and chief of marketing for the company.

The restaurants of Passion Food Hospitality, including DC Coast, TenPenh, Ceiba, and Acadiana, located in Washington, D.C., decided to seek alternatives to trans fats about two years ago. Since losing 125 pounds, chef/owner Jeff Tunks decided to prepare his light dishes even lighter and healthier by eliminating trans fats. “I am the first to admit I would eat a fried shrimp po’boy every day if I could,” he says. “But when I take that first bite, it surely sets me at ease to know there is not trans fat in the oil.”

Fast-food restaurants, which are one of the biggest culprits of foods high in trans fats, have been quick to follow. Chains such as Burger King, McDonald’s, and Hardee’s have announced a switch to zero trans fat oils for their cooking. Subway, a chain that had very little trans fats in its food in the first place, has completely eliminated it from its core menu as well. “We always look for ways to improve our products,” says Les Winograd, a Subway spokesman. “We have a reputation for offering healthy alternatives to traditional, fatty fast foods. Eliminating even the small amount of trans fats we had was just another way of improving.”

Even hotels are recognizing the importance of switching to a healthier alternative. Last year, Carlson Hotels Worldwide announced plans to eliminate shortening containing trans fats at the majority of its hotels. The Radisson Fort McDowell Resort & Casino in Scottsdale, Ariz., was one of the hotels that participated in the pilot program. The resort’s restaurant, the Ahnala Mesquite Room, successfully eliminated trans fats from its menu in October 2006 and found that guests actually preferred the flavor of its healthier alternatives and appreciated the restaurant’s effort to emphasize good health.

Many restaurants have reported no change in taste after switching to a healthier alternative. Of course, each restaurant has its own alternative formula. McDonald’s, for instance, uses a canola oil cooking blend for its fried items, such as French fries, chicken, and its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. The Cheesecake Factory reports using a blend of olive and canola oils to replace the oils previously used for cooking. “In making the switch to trans fat-free cooking oils, our guests have reported no discernable taste differences to our unique menu items,” says Mears, who adds that the switch has not affected menu pricing.

The public has responded positively to increased healthy options—especially those with no trans fat. “Our customers rave about the freshness and selection of ingredients,” says Thomas DuBois, CEO and founder of Tomato Tamoto, a new made-to-order salad bar restaurant that recently opened in Plano, Tex.

Of course, that’s not to say there haven’t been any complaints since these bans first took effect. Much of the initial resistance was due to the high cost of trans fat-free oils, says Lichten. “But as more and more restaurants switch over, this has increased the availability from the oil companies,” she adds. “Many restaurants have found that the trans fat-free oils are the same price or even lower.”

Some in the restaurant industry have also complained that it’s not the government or any other agency’s place to ban these fats. Dan Fleshler, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, was quoted in 2006 (when New York City’s Board of Health voted to make it the nation’s first city to ban trans fats) as saying, “We don’t think that a municipal health agency has any business banning a product that the Food and Drug Administration has already approved.”

However, most restaurants have willingly complied—or even made changes without being placed under a ban—and the general public has been happy with the changes. And dietitians surely agree it’s been a change for the better. “Even though it’s each person’s individual right to choose what they want to consume, as a nation, I believe we should be looking out for the well-being of our people,” says Shama. “Everyone’s lives are busy and everyone is on the go, and there are times they have to rely on fast or convenient foods. They should be comforted in knowing that whatever they do pick up is something that’s not going to give them heart disease because of having trans fats. We have to give people choice, but we still need to look out for their best interest.”

Helping Your Patients
Regardless of whether your city has a ban, there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding trans fats, especially since it’s become such a hot news item in the last couple of years. Shama says her patients ask her many questions, but she tries to make it simple. “I call them the artery-clogging, heart disease-causing fats,” she says. “That makes it pretty clear.”

Elaine Pelc, RD, LDN, of Baltimore, gives patients a visual picture to help them get the point. “I tell my patients to think about what bacon grease does when it cools: It solidifies,” she explains. “I tell them that trans fats do the same thing in your arteries. And when they solidify, they clog up the arteries.”

Dietitians can help their patients make wiser choices when dining out, regardless of whether they reside in a city with a trans fat ban. Shama tells clients to check up on places where they plan to eat. “If they know where they’re going to eat, they can look up the menu online,” she says. “If they take the time to check out the menu beforehand and get a sense of what some of the healthier options are, they’ll be less likely to opt for the colossal cheeseburger with fries.”

“There are no health benefits of trans fats, and no level is considered to be safe,” adds Janel Ovrut, MS, RD, LDN, who is based in Boston. “I tell my clients that when it comes to how much trans fats are in their diet, they should stick to zero.”

Ovrut says that Boston’s ban on trans fats has taken the guesswork out of which restaurant foods contain them. “Now we can all rest assured that the answer is ‘none,’” she says. “I think that Boston residents take pride in the fact that we’re part of a health initiative that will hopefully guide other cities and towns to make the same changes. The ban has also created more buzz about the harmful effects of trans fats, and consumers are starting to realize the negative impact after a unanimous vote that forbid trans fats from dining establishments. Consumers take notice and are hopefully making changes in their at-home eating habits as well.”

Consumer habits are certainly an issue. Even if people live in an area where a ban is in place, they still may be consuming trans fats at home. That’s why it’s important to help clients be more proactive about their nutrition, not only when dining out but also when purchasing groceries.

“I advise my clients to read the ingredient list on foods,” says Ovrut. “Just because a package says ‘zero trans fats’ per serving doesn’t mean the product is completely void of partially hydrogenated oil. Products can be promoted as trans fat free as long as there is less than 0.5 grams per serving. But once you consume more than one serving of a product—which is easy to do with packaged snacks or baked goods—you’re creeping up toward 1 gram or more of trans fats. Some food manufacturers are even decreasing the listed serving size of their product so that it meets the trans fat-free guidelines. Consumers are hungry for more and often eat double or triple the serving size.”

However, as a result of consumers’ interest in trans fat-free products, some manufacturers—just like many restaurants—have decided to eliminate it, says Lichten. “But remember, trans fat free still does not mean fewer calories. Most trans fat-free products have exactly the same amount of fat and calories as the original,” she notes.

A Balanced Diet
Even without reading the ingredient list, patients can have a good idea of which foods might contain trans fat. These include premade desserts, butter spreads, convenience foods, and fried items, says Dean. These are the types of foods that clients should avoid in general.

They also tend to be the products that have a long list of ingredients, adds Stella Lucia Volpe, PhD, RD, LDN, FACSM, an associate professor and the Miriam Stirl Term Endowed Chair of Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia. “If you look at a packaged product and it has an extremely long list of ingredients, chances are it’s probably not very good for you and may contain trans fats,” she explains. “I advise clients to try to make pure food choices. Natural, unprocessed foods like lean meat, fish, fruits, or vegetables are always the best option.”

While the increased awareness surrounding the dangers of trans fat has been wonderful, one potential problem with the focus on switching to “healthier alternatives” is that consumers may start to believe that certain foods are healthy just because they don’t have trans fat. With or without trans fats, French fries are not a healthy choice. Clients need to know that trans fat-free items may be better for you than those with the dangerous fat, but they still aren’t necessarily healthy. “It’s important to make healthy choices in general,” says Pelc. “People should be limiting their intake of these foods anyway in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Choosing trans fat-free foods does not mean that you are choosing healthy foods. It’s important for clients to remember that removing trans fat from a food does not necessarily make it a healthy choice.”

“Just because it says they have zero trans fat still doesn’t mean those potato chips or French fries were the best option on the menu,” adds Volpe. “I typically try to work on portion control with my clients. If they really love something like potato chips and won’t give them up, we can at least work on limiting their portion.”

The bottom line? Getting clients to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet may not happen overnight, but helping them eliminate or even simply cut down on trans fat is definitely a step in the right direction.

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.