Avoiding Trans Fats in Restaurants
Are unhealthy trans fats lurking in your favorite restaurant meals?
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
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.
They quickly became a staple in the American diet in the 1970s. Partially hydrogenated vegetable fats were used extensively in fried and baked foods, such as French fries, margarines, cakes, cookies, crackers, and chips.
But the evidence against trans fats has accumulated over the years. It is now known that the hydrogenation process makes the artificial fat capable of clogging arteries, much like saturated fat. Trans fats can raise levels of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol, much like saturated fats. They also lower levels of "good" (HDL) cholesterol.
Beyond their artery-clogging properties, trans fats are also high in calories -- like all fats - and, when eaten in excess, can contribute to overweight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2005 Dietary Guidelines warn consumers to "limit intake of fats and oils high in saturated and/or trans fatty acids and choose products low in such fats and oils."
Not a Quick Fix
It's important to note that limiting trans fats is only one factor affecting heart disease risk, experts say. Tufts University cardiovascular researcher Alice Lichtenstein thinks the impact is yet to be determined.
"It is likely to be a positive effect, as long as consumers understand that eliminating trans fats from their diets is only one piece of the puzzle and not a quick fix for heart disease risk," she says.
Unfortunately, fixing the American diet will take much more than eliminating trans fats from restaurant and home menus.
"We need to help consumers understand that good health is more than eliminating a single food," she says. "It is a lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, a healthy diet and being at a healthy weight."
Lichtenstein thinks reducing obesity should top the list of ways to prevent heart disease.
"The big gorilla in the room is body weight, and it is getting worse instead of better," she says.
American Dietetic Association spokesperson Bonnie Taub-Dix, MS, RD, agrees.
"Banning trans fats in restaurants does not address the obesity issue, which is due, in part, to eating large portions of high-fat foods," she says. "Even if the fettuccine Alfredo is trans fat-free, it is still loaded with fat and calories."
Legislate or Educate?
Isn't it enough to inform consumers about trans fats, without letting lawmakers decide which foods we should avoid?
Taub-Dix thinks it is an excellent idea to encourage restaurants to use healthier fats. But she thinks it is more important to educate consumers.
"We need consumers to take responsibility to learn more about the food they eat and how it affects their health, whether they are eating at home, ordering takeout, or at a restaurant," she says.
Consumers need a crash course in all kinds of fats in the diet, she says.
"People think trans fat-free means fat-free, which is the wrong message that can be misinterpreted and lead to overeating," says Taub-Dix.