by Nora Caley
Ed. note: QSR is hosting a webcast seminar on trans fats in the restaurant industry. For information, visit www.qsrmagazine.com/interactive .
“Trans fat free” sometimes doesn’t really mean trans fat free.
That’s because there are two kinds of trans fats, artificial and natural. The artificial variety can be found in the partially hydrogenated oils used by much of the foodservice industry, while natural trans fats occur in the digestive systems of ruminant animals (cows, sheep, goats). So does this mean a concept that switches to non-hydrogenated oil but serves burgers cannot legally claim to be “trans fat–free”?
Not necessarily, the experts say.
When New York City’s trans fat ban begins July 1, restaurants will be prohibited from using spreads, frying oils, margarines, or shortenings containing more than 0.5 grams of artificial trans fat per serving. A year after that, restaurants will have to stop using the oils in all cooking, including baking.
“There are new oils made from low linolenic soybean and high oleic canola oil that are low in trans fat and saturated fats,” says Bill McCullough, director of marketing with St. Louis–based Bunge Oil. “They’re difficult to bake with, and the mouthfeel has not been perfected yet. That’s why in New York they have another year to make the switch for bakeries.”
According to No Trans Fat NYC (www.notransfatnyc.org), a free resource for New York City food professionals, the ban does not include butter, beef tallow, suet, or lard, because they contain only naturally occurring trans fats. McCullough says 20 municipalities have pending legislation that would ban trans fats. “I’m assuming New York will be the template,” he says. “They have done a fairly good job of laying out the regulation to phase out artificial trans fat, how to comply, and what you need to know.”
If other cities use New York as the guideline, then restaurants likely will not have to communicate how much naturally occurring trans fat their menus contain.
Some restaurant companies that are voluntarily going trans fat free are making sure they’re clear about what kind of trans fat they’re eliminating. Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill announced it will test a zero artificial-trans-fat menu in 50 locations, with plans to eventually extend the menu to all 334 locations.
“There are no guidelines from the USDA on artificial versus non-artificial trans fat, so just to play it safe and do it legally, we’re saying, ‘zero grams of artificial trans fat,’” says Daniel Barash, senior director of operations and product development for Moe’s. “We will be advertising the fact that the chips you’re eating now are zero grams artificial trans fat.” Eventually the tortillas and cookies will also switch to zero grams artificial trans fat.
Other companies such as Jason’s Deli have made carefully worded announcements. The 75-unit company’s home page shows the message, “Trans Fat is Bad! That’s why Jason’s Delis are free of partially hydrogenated oils.” Web visitors can click on a link to a USA Today article about the deli and the oils. Starbucks announced it stopped baking with artificial trans fats and will get regional bakery vendors to do the same.
Melissa Dobbins, spokesperson for the Chicago-based National Dairy Council, doesn’t think there should be any public health recommendations about naturally occurring trans fat because it impacts the body differently than artificial trans fat, which raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol. “There is some research that shows naturally occurring trans fat does not have that negative effect,” she says. “Some of the naturally occurring trans fats are very promising for heart health, especially conjugated linolenic acids or CLA.”
Some foods that contain natural trans fats— for example, a glass of milk—also contain nutrients such as calcium. Artificial trans fats, such as stick margarine, do not contain nutrients. Dobbins thinks more research needs to be done before changing labels to reflect how much naturally occurring trans fat a food contains. “We’re saying if a glass of milk has small amounts of trans fat, are you going to throw the baby out with the bathwater?”
Julie Greenstein, deputy director of health promotion policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the center differentiates between naturally and artificially occurring trans fats in its educational materials. “We always point it out,” she says. “We say the majority of trans fat is artificial trans fat.”
The center is unconcerned with truth-in-advertising issues that could arise from restaurants not mentioning artificial versus naturally occurring trans fats. “In an ideal world, restaurants should say ‘artificial’ or ‘from partially hydrogenated oil’ when they talk about trans fats,” she says. “But we are more pleased to hear that they are getting rid of artificial trans fats. Gram for gram, artificial trans fat is the most harmful.”