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Theme parks join movement to ban trans fat

Universal Studios is the latest to phase out the artery-clogging oils in its food and expand menu offerings to include more-nutritious choices.

January 01, 2007|Alicia Chang | The Associated Press

The early reviews are mostly positive at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, where the menu changed Christmas Eve to cut trans fat from many junk-food favorites.

Twelve-year-old Jack Xu noticed something different about his French fry. "It tastes drier and not too salty," he said, then added: "I still like it."

The self-described junk-food addict, an exchange student from Beijing who's visited the park before, was on a field trip last week and enjoying a basket of chicken tenders and fries.

Universal Parks & Resorts, home to movie-inspired thrill rides, is the latest theme park operation to ban artery-clogging trans fat and offer more healthful menus at its three attractions in California and Florida.

The move follows that of entertainment giant Walt Disney Co., which announced in October that it would serve morenutritious children's meals and phase out artificial fat at its resorts.

Last week, more than 90% of foods at Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure in Florida were cooked with trans-fat-free oils. Other snacks such as the churro, a Spanish fried-dough pastry, will be trans-fat-free by the end of this year, said Ric Florell, a senior vice president with Universal Orlando Resort.

Customers also have more-healthful choices of side dishes too, including salads and fruit bowls.

Florell said the goal was to give customers options and not dictate what to eat.

"If guests come in, they're not forced to have fruit if their little hearts desire French fries," he said. But if they insist on fries, those will be free of trans fat.

Trans fatty acids, commonly known as trans fat, are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. Although it gives food a longer shelf life, trans fat also increases the risk of heart disease by raising the level of bad cholesterol in the blood.

The average American eats almost 5 pounds of trans fat a year.

At Universal Studios Hollywood, Jack Xu's teacher, Michael Fang, welcomed the alternatives. Because his students want to hit as many heart-thumping rides as possible, Fang usually buys them fast food because it's cheap and convenient.

Now the food is more healthful, and Fang says the taste is just as good.

"I can't even tell the difference," he said, munching on a fried chicken leg.

The new options are also important to Todd Medwed, whose family often visits to ride the roller coasters and tour the back lot. "It's better for everybody. It's healthier," he said as he watched his 6-year-old son, Blake, eat a salad.

Food scientists working for Universal experimented for months to find trans fat alternatives, holding blind taste tests with customers and using their feedback to create menus with more variety, including fruit juices and skim milk.

Last month New York became the first U.S. city to ban artificial trans fat in restaurant foods. Nationwide, trans fat must be listed on packaged foods.

Since Disney's venture into more healthful eating at its theme parks worldwide, it has received positive feedback from parents, with more than half choosing fruits and low-fat milk over French fries and soda, said Mary Niven, a vice president with the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.

The ESPN Zone restaurant there and the ABC Commissary at Walt Disney World Resort currently fry chicken, fish and potatoes without trans fat, and the ingredient will be cut from all eateries this year.

As for Universal, it will monitor the progress of its trans fat ban in the United States before deciding whether to expand it to overseas theme parks. Universal's Florell declined to say how much the switch in oils would cost the company but said it would be "a little more expensive."

Besides Disney and Universal, SeaWorld Orlando also pledged last year to limit fats and calories in some meals, and it created a restaurant where food is prepared without trans fat and preservatives.

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