« March 2007 Table of Contents
Top Story: Oil change
Restaurateurs, producers eliminate trans fat from seafood with health, money in mind
By Steven Hedlund
March 01, 2007
The anti-trans fat movement is spreading like a water-fed
grease fire. Not a week passes without a restaurateur or food
manufacturer announcing that it's emptying its fryers of
artery-clogging partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and
filling them with trans fat-free
In the past few months, casual-seafood heavyweights Red
Lobster and Joe's Crab Shack have vowed to rid their menus of
trans fat. So have mom-and-pop establishments, such as Newick's
in Maine and New Hampshire, Charleston Crab House in South
Carolina and Sudie's Seafood House in Texas. Frozen-seafood
producers, such as Gorton's of Gloucester and King & Prince
Seafood, have purged their retail products of trans fat.
The list of companies that have pledged in the past few
months to reduce or remove trans fat from their products reads
like a who's who of the food industry - McDonald's, Burger
King, Wendy's, Subway, KFC, Taco Bell, Denny's, Applebee's,
Chili's, Ruby Tuesday, Kraft, ConAgra and Sara Lee.
Even Crisco shortening products, which introduced Americans
to the economical advantages - and unhealthful consequences -
of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in 1911, are now trans
Trans fat is created when hydrogen is added to vegetable
oil, a process called hydrogenation, which was developed in the
early 1900s to lengthen the shelf life of baked goods, snack
foods and fried foods and offer consumers a cheaper alternative
to animal fat.
Trans fat occurs naturally in some animal products, but most
of it is formed when liquid oils are converted to solid fats,
such as shortening and margarine. About 80 percent of trans fat
in the American diet comes from partially hydrogenated
vegetable oil, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
which advises consumers in its 2005 dietary guidelines to limit
their trans fat intake.
"People are absolutely more aware that they need to pay
attention to trans fat," says American Dietetic Association
spokeswoman Marisa Moore, RDLD. "The reason why is [they
realize] that heart disease is the No. 1 [cause of death] in
the United States."
Trans fat raises LDL or "bad" cholesterol and lowers HDL or
"good" cholesterol, increasing the risk of coronary heart
Trans fat "has somewhat of a double-whammy effect on our
risk for coronary heart disease. That's the reason why we're so
concerned with trans fat," says Moore. "Saturated fat, which is
still a huge part of the American diet, increases bad
cholesterol but doesn't have the same effect on good
The trans fat bandwagon
In addition to its healthful features, non-hydrogenated
vegetable oil has its financial benefits. By publicizing the
frying-oil swap, restaurateurs and producers are capitalizing
on the trans fat media blitz, triggered by New York City's Dec.
5 vote to ban trans fat in restaurants and school cafeterias,
becoming the first big U.S. city to do so.
Though it's difficult for restaurateurs and producers to
attribute increased customer traffic or sales directly to the
frying-oil swap, they say they're receiving nothing but
positive feedback from their customers, who aspire to eat
healthier but refuse to give up fried seafood.
After all, fried seafood isn't waning in popularity. Nearly
one-quarter of the 190 seafood restaurateurs SeaFood Business
polled for its 2006 foodservice survey said frying is their
most popular cooking method, trailing only grilling at 31
percent; 68 percent of restaurant respondents said their use of
fried seafood is consistent or increasing, while 22 percent
said it's declining and only 10 percent don't menu fried
seafood at all.
At the same time, Americans are more health conscious - at
least they say they are.
A 2004 survey conducted by the Hartman Group of Bellevue,
Wash., found that 41 percent of respondents are "very
concerned" about trans fat, 30 percent are "concerned," 24
percent are "somewhat concerned" and only 5 percent are "not
concerned at all."
A 2005 survey administered by the NPD Group of Port
Washington, N.Y., shows that 45 percent of respondents are
trying to curb their trans fat intake and 15 percent are trying
to avoid it completely.
Though it appears seafood restaurateurs and producers are
jumping on the anti-trans fat bandwagon, some have been working
on the frying-oil swap for years.
Trans fat was just a blip on Americans' radar screens until
1999, when the Food and Drug Administration, pressured by
public-health advocates, proposed requiring packaged-food
manufacturers to list trans fat content on Nutrition Facts
labels. The law took effect Jan. 1, 2006.
Almost 10 months later, New York City's Board of Health
proposed banning trans fat in restaurants and school
cafeterias. By then, trans fat was a household word.
On Feb. 8, Philadelphia became the second big city to
prohibit trans fat in restaurants. By press time in
mid-February, legislators in at least 14 states were calling
for partial or full bans of trans fat in restaurants.
Some legislators and public-health advocates say the
government is responsible for eliminating trans fat from the
American diet. However, public awareness is already forcing the
food industry to shun trans fat.
In 2005, Gorton's became the first national frozen-seafood
brand to offer a complete line of trans fat-free products; a "0
grams of trans fat" label is displayed prominently on Gorton's
packaging. (The FDA allows foods containing less than 0.5 grams
of trans fat per serving to be labeled as "0 grams of trans
Previously, about 90 percent of the Gloucester, Mass.,
company's 56 products contained trans fat.
"We had a responsibility to make the change as trans fat
became a bigger concern," says Judson Reis, Gorton's VP of
marketing. "If we hadn't made the change, then I think we'd be
in jeopardy of seeing a significant decline in business. Now if
you don't do it, you face a backlash from consumers."
Gorton's now uses a blend of non-hydrogenated canola,
cottonseed, soybean and rice bran oils. The transition took
"It wasn't easy, and it wasn't inexpensive," says Reis. "We
worked hard to select oil blends that did not affect our
products' taste or texture," he explains. "Though
non-hydrogenated oils do give a slightly softer texture on
battered products, our market tests clearly showed that our
customers like our products using non-hydrogenated oils as much
as or more than the products that used partially hydrogenated
Gorton's also installed more efficient freezers and
shortened its packaging lines so its products remain solidly
frozen. Non-hydrogenated oil is softer and turns to liquid
quicker than partially hydrogenated oil.
Another financial benefit to non-hydrogenated vegetable oil
is that it's more efficient than partially hydrogenated oil,
say seafood restaurateurs. Non-hydrogenated oil has a lower
viscosity, so more oil drains back into the fryer when the
basket is lifted from it, lengthening the oil's fry life.
Oil usage at Newick's three Maine and New Hampshire
restaurants declined 10 percent after switching to a
non-hydrogenated canola oil, made by Cargill, in 2004, says
Marty Champagne, the chain's seafood buyer.
Plus, "you can actually taste what it's supposed to taste
like - fish," he says. The new oil gives the fish "a much
better flavor profile."
To no surprise, the anti-trans fat movement has strengthened
demand for non-hydrogenated oil.
"Demand continues to outpace supply," says John Garner,
national accounts manager/technical sales for Minneapolis-based
As a result, non-hydrogenated oil costs an average of 50
percent more than partially hydrogenated cooking oil, but
prices will drop over time as supplies increase, says Garner,
who lives in Lee, N.H.
"We're paying more, but it's not significant," says Kirsten
Wlaschin, director of marketing for Ivar's, with three
full-service restaurants in the Seattle area and 28
quick-service Seafood Bar units in Washington and California.
The Seattle company switched to a non-hydrogenated canola oil
in 2005; most of the chain's menu items are fried.
"We were very fortunate," notes Wlaschin. "We partnered with
a vendor up front, so we haven't had a shortage of oil. Getting
on this early was key."
Stephen Joseph, president and CEO of FryTest.com, launched
in February to show chefs the economical advantages of
non-hydrogenated vegetable oil, says the price difference
between non-hydrogenated oil and partially hydrogenated oil is
For example, if a $25 35-pound case of heavy-duty oil cooks
2,500 servings of French fries, the oil costs 1 cent per
serving. If the oil costs $30 per case instead of $25, it costs
only 1.2 cents per serving, notes Joseph. A 35-pound case of
non-hydrogenated oil usually costs $25 to $32 for heavy grade,
$12 to $19 for medium grade and less than $12 for light grade;
the heavier the grade, the longer the fry life.
Joseph is also a San Francisco public-interest attorney, and
in 2003 he sued Kraft Foods and McDonald's for using trans fat
in their products.
Switching is 'complex'
Ironically, most fast-food chains, including McDonald's, the
world's largest, drained their fryers of "unhealthy" beef
tallow and loaded them with "healthy" partially hydrogenated
vegetable oil 15 to 20 years ago when public-health advocates
eschewed saturated fat.
"In the mid-'80s, back when salad dressing was the 'panic du
jour,' everyone was clamoring to get as much saturated fat as
possible out of its products," says J. Justin Wilson, senior
research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom in
"In the early '90s, almost all restaurants, having had a gun
held to their heads by public-advocacy groups, switched to what
was then the only viable alternative [to beef tallow] -
partially hydrogenated oil," he explains. "Then a big study
came out that said trans fat isn't as healthy as saturated fat.
Restaurants were damned if they did, damned if they
That "big study," led by Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard
School of Public Health and released in 1993, drew a link
between increased consumption of trans fat and increased risk
of coronary heart disease. Three years later, Willett published
another study claiming trans fat resulted in about 30,000
heart-related deaths a year.
Willett's studies helped rouse the food industry. But
switching from partially hydrogenated oil to non-hydrogenated
oil doesn't happen overnight, especially for enormous chains
like Darden Restaurants.
"It's a complex transition," says Darden spokeswoman Deborah
Robison, RD. "It took extensive testing. We tested oils for a
The Orlando, Fla., company, with nearly 1,400 North American
restaurants, unveiled in December that its Red Lobster and
Olive Garden units are switching to a trans fat-free canola oil
by November and that more than 100 units had already
Darden's Smokey Bones Barbeque & Grill and Bahama Breeze
concepts will do the same by mid-2008; Seasons 52 doesn't use
trans fat. The Red Lobster and Olive Garden units in New York
will be trans fat-free by the city's July 1 deadline, says
Robison. "We do not expect any material impact on earnings" as
a result of the frying-oil swap, she adds.
Marriott International, which announced in February that
it's removing trans fat from most of the food served at its
more than 2,300 U.S. and Canadian hotels, tested alternative
oils for eight years.
"We're trying to be proactive," says Laurie Goldstein,
senior manager of public relations for the Bethesda, Md.,
Salad dressings, artisan breads, muffins, croissants and
cookies are already trans fat-free. After a two-year
transition, Marriott switched in February to a non-hydrogenated
canola-based oil, made by Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland,
"Our guests still want to order French fries," notes
Goldstein, adding that Marriott serves more than 6 million
pounds of French fries a year.
At Phillips Foods' Baltimore restaurant, crab cakes, its
signature menu item, represent an astounding 68 percent of all
food orders, one-quarter of which are fried instead of broiled,
and sales of fish and chips are "through the roof."
"We do a lot of frying," says Bill Irvin, Phillips' director
of operations, "and trans fat is top of mind for a lot of
The Baltimore company switched in January to a
non-hydrogenated soybean oil, made by Ventura Foods, at five of
its eight Mid-Atlantic restaurants; its three Ocean City, Md.,
locations will do the same by summer. It's making the
frying-oil swap at its quick-service concept, Phillips Famous
Seafood Express, too. Plus, most of Phillips' retail seafood
products are trans fat-free, including crab cakes, its top
seller, notes Honey Konicoff, the company's VP of
"We're in the hospitality industry," says Irvin. "We care
about our guests, and we wouldn't do anything to hurt them. If
we did, they wouldn't come back."
Phillips is absorbing the increased cost of the new oil and
isn't raising menu prices as a result, he notes.
Neither is Charleston Crab House, which switched in November
to a blend of non-hydrogenated cottonseed and canola oils at
its four South Carolina restaurants, even though the new oil
costs about 20 percent more; fried food represents about half
the chain's sales.
What's more, Charleston Crab House received a wave of
positive press when it made the frying-oil swap, resulting in
increased customer traffic, says John Keener, the chain's
founder and owner.
Most of the seafood restaurateurs and producers interviewed
for this story agree that it's up to them - n ot the government
- to reduce or remove trans fat from their products.
"Personally, it drives me nuts," quips Irvin. "If you ban
smoking, fois gras, [trans fat], what's next? [New York's trans
fat ban] takes away people's rights."
"There is an appropriate role for government to educate
consumers about the health problems associated with trans fat,"
says Wilson, of the CCF. [New York's trans fat ban] scares me
because it's the first time we've seen a government agency step
in to regulate a personal-health issue. No one disputes that
health boards are there to regulate arsenic in drinking water,
lead in paint or rats crawling around restaurants. These are
acute food-safety issues where there's an unknown threat to
consumers and they have no ability to exercise personal
"But that's not what's going on with trans fat," he says.
"It's a personal-health issue. Regulators, [the Center for
Science in the Public Interest] and others got fed up with
people not listening to them and said, 'We're going to do it
for them,' which is nannyism, paternalism and social
engineering at its core."
But some consumers and public-advocacy groups, such as CSPI,
say the government is responsible for watching what Americans
"It's the responsibility of government: the FDA and USDA,"
says Michael Jacobson, CSPI's executive director in Washington,
D.C. "And they've acknowledged that it's harmful and they've
said people should switch to a healthier oil, but they haven't
taken the regulatory steps that would really effect that
CSPI is working with cities and states to ban or limit trans
fat in restaurants and is petitioning the FDA to remove
partially hydrogenated oil from its Generally Recognized As
A December survey conducted by Technomic of Chicago found
that 63 percent of diners nationwide support New York City's
trans fat ban.
"I think it's the responsibility of all those who know -
business, government, health professionals," says Moore, of the
ADA. "We have to work together."
"The reality is you're responsible," says Garner, of
Cargill. "Put down the Twinkie and get off the couch."
Hopefully, as the anti-trans fat message spreads into
mainstream America more consumers will trade Twinkies for
Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at