Avoiding Trans Fats in Restaurants

Are unhealthy trans fats lurking in your favorite restaurant meals?

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It started in New York City and Chicago. Citing the impact of trans fats on heart disease, city officials acted to ban trans fats from the menus of restaurants in their cities.

Since then, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, New Hampshire and New Jersey have also introduced bills to ban trans fats (often used for baking and frying) in restaurants. Some fast food restaurants, like Wendy's, are now using trans fat-free oil. Many others, including hotel chains, cruise ship lines, Starbucks, and even Disney, have joined the trans-fat-free bandwagon.

Now that the government requires grocery store food package labels to list trans fats content, consumers have become more enlightened about where these unhealthy fats lurk. But restaurants have largely been exempt from revealing their extensive use of trans fats.

Experts agree that trans fats should be significantly reduced in the American diet. And because we eat out or pick up take-out so often, restaurant food has become the next target for helping to fix our diets.

What are Trans Fats?

Trans fats are man-made fats. They start out as liquid vegetable oils, and through a process called hydrogenation, hydrogen is added. This turns the liquid oil into a partially solid, or hydrogenated, product.

Ironically, trans fats were originally used as an alternative to unhealthy saturated fats. They also improved the shelf stability and texture of foods. Frying oil could be used longer, foods had a longer shelf life, bakery goods maintained freshness longer. Trans fats made pie crusts flakier, cookies crunchier and frosting creamier.