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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 
non-hydrogenated vegetable oil.

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 fat-free.

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 disease.

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 cholesterol."

 

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 fat.")

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 more than 
a year.

"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 oils."

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.

 

Oil economics

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 Cargill.

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 negligible.

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 Washington, D.C.

"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 didn't."

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 year-and-a-half."

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 switched.

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., company.

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, for frying.

"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 people."

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 marketing.

"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.

 

Who's responsible?

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 responsibility.

"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 eat.

"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 change."

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 Safe list.

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 seafood.

 

Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

 

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