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Say, Does Trans Fat Come With Those Fries?

If a consumer group and lawmakers get their way, restaurant menus will disclose use of partially hydrogenated oils.

September 26, 2004|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

Researchers contend that trans fat -- coveted by cooks for boosting the shelf life and texture of foods -- increases the chance of heart disease. Now it's also giving the restaurant industry higher blood pressure.

The Food and Drug Administration, prompted by a consumer advocacy group, is considering whether to force restaurants to place notices in menus or on signs if they are using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, the trans-fatty-acid-laden ingredient in many fried foods.

The restaurants are facing pressure on other fronts as well. Lawmakers in Congress and the California Legislature have introduced bills requiring nutritional labeling on chain restaurant menus. And McDonald's Corp. has been taken to court by another advocacy group that contends the fast-food chain has failed to make good on a promise that it would reduce its use of trans fat and saturated fat.

Trans fat, a natural component of animal and dairy fat, is created artificially when food makers add hydrogen to vegetable oil to make it more solid. Researchers contend that trans fat raises levels of low-density lipoprotein, or "bad" cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Pizza combinations -- In an article in Sunday's Business section about nutritional labeling on restaurant menus, a representative of the California Restaurant Assn. said there were 1.3 trillion possible combinations for a pizza with 15 toppings to choose from. There are 32,768 combinations.

Manufacturers of packaged foods, already facing a 2006 deadline to display trans fat content on the nutritional labels of their products, have unleashed a flurry of trans-fat-free offerings, including reformulated versions of Crisco shortening and Triscuit snack crackers.

The push for restaurants to disclose their use of trans fat comes as diners increasingly go out to eat. According to the National Restaurant Assn, about 46% of the food dollar is now spent outside the home, compared with 25% in 1955.

"We buy a lot of food outside of grocery stores," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the group that petitioned the FDA for the rule change. "People should be informed about that food."

Mandatory labeling, however, faces stiff opposition from the restaurant industry.

Restaurateurs are concerned that because cooking is not always a precise science, labeling could expose them to litigation if trans fat and other nutritional content differ from amounts listed on menus.

"What goes on in kitchens is a creative endeavor that is not necessarily dictated by teaspoons and tablespoons," said Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Assn.

Then there are the customers themselves. More than 60% of them customize their orders, making it nearly impossible to calculate the trans fat content in every variation, said Stephenie Shah, a senior legislative director at the California Restaurant Assn. For example, she said, there are 1.3 trillion combinations for a pizza when there are 15 toppings to choose from, all with varying fat content.

The restaurant industry also maintains that previous nutritional labeling efforts have failed to address health concerns, said Rick Berman, executive director of Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group supported by restaurants and food companies. The main problem with nutritional labels, Berman said, is that they are aimed at people least likely to read them.

"The government shows that obesity is concentrated among people who have less than a high school diploma," Berman said. "Many of these people are functionally illiterate, yet all the bright-eyed bureaucrats and regulators think the answer is to provide fat grams and carbohydrate grams to people who don't read."

Jacobson said that sort of thinking was off-base.

"Trans fat has nothing to do with obesity," he said. "If all the trans fat were banned and replaced by other oils, there would be no effect on obesity. It has to do with heart disease.

"Nutritional labeling clearly hasn't been a panacea for America's health problems, but it has been a godsend for millions and millions of people who read labels carefully and are trying to protect their health."

Jacobson's group, which filed a separate petition with the FDA to prohibit partially hydrogenated oils as a food ingredient, contends that virtually all burger and fried chicken chains use the oils to fry foods, as do most casual dining establishments.

Some food suppliers also blanch certain foods, including French fries, in trans fat before freezing and shipping them to restaurants.

One anti-trans-fat group has taken the fight beyond petitions and legislation., a California nonprofit, sued Oak Brook Ill.-based McDonald's this year, alleging false advertising over its 2002 announcement that it would cook its famous fries in an oil with lower levels of trans fat and saturated fat.

The company released a statement last year that said the change would be delayed.

Jacobson's group placed a full-page ad in Friday's New York Times that chastised McDonald's for "A Broken McPromise" and depicted a heart attack victim being resuscitated.

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