Nutrition Action Healthletter
June 1999 — U.S. Edition



Burger King not only serves the fattiest french fries, it fries in fat that’s more hydrogenated than the fat used by most other food chains. It’s time to nudge the King to get an oil change


In the supermarket, it’s getting easier to avoid trans fat. All Promise and Smart Beat margarines have no trans, though some (especially the sticks) still have too much saturated fat. Other brands, like Fleischmann’s, sell trans-free tubs (they’re low in sat fat, too).
   And soon it should get even easier to avoid trans. The Food and Drug Administration may require that trans fat levels be listed on all food labels. If so, you’ll be able to limit trans-and saturated-fats not just in margarines, but in shortening, cookies, cakes, frostings, doughnuts, pies, french fries, fried chicken, fried fish, and dozens of other foods.
   The problem is that a good chunk of what we eat doesn’t come with labels.

Take-Out Trans

A third of all calories are now eaten outside the restaurants, cafeterias, convenience stores, snack bars, and, especially, fast-food outlets. And some of those foods make the trans levels in the supermarket aisles look trivial. They don’t have to.
   Trans fat is created when manufacturers partially hydrogenate liquid oils to make them more solid, more stable, and less greasy-tasting. But major oil suppliers have come up with low-trans alternatives that work just as well.
   “We have direct replacements for the hydrogenated oil used in most restaurants,” says Willie Loh of Cargill Foods, the Minneapolis-based agribusiness. For frying, Cargill sells a non-hydrogenated canola oil that can replace the current favorite, a pourable shortening that is 20-to-30-percent trans (and usually 15-to-20- percent saturated).
   “For baked goods, muffins, cakes, doughnuts, granolas, crackers, pies, and margarine, we have a line of low-trans products that are solid at room temperature,” he adds. Cargill’s new TransEnd shortening is 35-percent saturated and only two-percent trans. That’s not great, but it’s a lot better than all-purpose shortening, which is roughly 30-percent saturated and 35-percent trans.
   So far, the company hasn’t been able to replace the heavily hydrogenated and saturated fats used in “a few niche confectionary applications like the chocolate coating on an ice cream bar,” says Loh. “But for the majority of foods, we do have alternatives.”
    Here’s a guide to dodging the trans fat that restaurants throw at you. The numbers come from our analyses of typical restaurant foods over the last five years. As a rule of thumb, think of any food with three or more grams of trans or sat fat as trouble. The less of both you eat, the better.

1 Axe the appetizers. Remember when an appetizer meant shrimp cocktail, consommé, or other light fare to whet your appetite? Now it’s more likely to crush it...and your chances of not moving up a size by next swimsuit season.
   Take the ever-popular batter-dipped fried whole onion plus dipping sauce that’s served at steak houses. It’s not just an appetizer-it’s a day’s worth of calories (2,100) and trans fat (18 grams). Add in its saturated fat and you’re talking about a three-day supply of arterial putty. So what if you split it with a friend? After 1,000 calories, you’re supposed to dig in to a main course?
   The cheese fries with ranch dressing at many steak houses are another marvel of modern face-stuffing. Their 11 grams of trans fat are bad enough. Add 81 grams of saturated fat and you wonder whether local health departments should require restaurants to have a defibrillator in case their patrons’ tickers need a jump start. How many people would have to split this baby to get its 3,000 calories down to a reasonable level?
   And so it goes. From stuffed potato skins to fried mozzarella sticks to Buffalo wings, the typical appetizer menu brings good business to fat farms and funeral parlors. Whether it starts out fatty (like the cheese sticks and chicken wings) or ends up that way (what with frying and dipping sauce), you end up with a load of trans (plus saturated) fat and calories.

2 Cultivate a fear of frying. At home, it’s fine to sauté in a little canola or olive oil. At fast-food and mid-priced restaurants, many foods are fried in what starts out as a brick- or sludge-like shortening or margarine. And that means a hefty dose of trans.
   Seafood restaurants are a good example. A typical order of fried clams or the fried seafood combo packs about 50 grams of fat, roughly ten of them trans and almost as many saturated. At chains like Red Lobster, fried shrimp, fried fish, fried anything means heart trouble.
   And judging by the six to ten grams of trans fat in each order of onion rings or chicken fingers we tested, dinner-house or family-style chains like T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, and Denny’s apparently buy their shortening from the same distributors as seafood emporiums. Ditto for fast-food chains like KFC. Its Original Recipe Chicken Dinner has seven grams of trans, mostly from the chicken and biscuit.
   Of course, one restaurant food probably delivers more trans fat to the nation’s circulatory system than any other. French fries-sold just about everywhere but Starbucks and Barnes & Noble-deserve an award from the Cardiologists-in-the-Caribbean travel agency.
   The most popular side dish in America delivers anywhere from four grams (McDonald’s) to seven grams (Burger King) of trans fat to the arteries that keep your heart muscle moving. Even if the chains use liquid oil in the restaurants, they rely on hydrogenated fats to par-fry the taters before shipping.
   You want fries? If you can handle the 410 calories in a “small,” try the Boardwalk Fries sold in many shopping malls. Thanks to liquid (peanut) frying oil, you get no trans. But with nearly four grams of sat fat, you’ll still need to split it with someone.

3 Don’t make miscellaneous mistakes. Not all trans fat comes from hydrogenated vegetable oil. Meat and milk have small amounts of naturally occurring trans. But “small” becomes substantial (seven grams) when you’re ordering a 16-ounce prime rib.
   A few others doozies to dodge: A chicken pot pie has six grams of trans (and 11 grams of sat fat) lurking in that innocent-looking pastry dough. And biscuits and gravy start your day with four grams of trans (plus ten grams of saturated).

4 Be picky with pastries. We’ve never understood how anyone could afford to munch on the 670 calories and 34 grams of fat in a Cinnabon. But if you watch the “chefs” smear those slabs of margarine on the dough, the six grams of trans and nine grams of sat fat should come as no surprise. Some snack.
   Except for the Cinnabon and apple pie, each of the pastries we tested had “only” about three grams of trans. That’s because they came from Mrs. Fields, Au Bon Pain, and other upscale bakers, which use more butter than margarine (that’s no better). If the three grams of trans in a fudge brownie sundae served at dinner houses don’t getcha, the (far worse) 27 grams of sat fat will. So watch out.

The Good News

Plenty of restaurant fare is nearly trans-free. But unless the chef invites you into the kitchen to inspect his or her cooking oils, your best bet is to order food that’s low in all fats. For example:
  • At most delis, get the turkey sandwich with mustard.
  • At seafood restaurants, order broiled fish and a baked potato with a tablespoon of sour cream.
  • Stuck at a dinner-house chain like Applebee’s? Try the barbecue or grilled chicken breast. At McDonald’s, order a Grilled Chicken Deluxe sandwich without the mayo.
  • Pick lower-fat Chinese dishes like Szechuan shrimp or stir-fried vegetables. It’s a good bet that the cook is using liquid oil. And if you steer clear of the beef, pork, and deep-fried ingredients, you won’t get too much sat fat either.
  • Most salads should be low in trans. But you can get a load of sat fat from the cheese and meat in a chef salad or from the sheer quantity of dressing in a chicken Caesar salad. Solution: Get fat-free or light dressing.

Margo Wootan is Senior Scientist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action Healthletter’s publisher. Rachel Berger helped compile the information for this article.

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