FDA Urged to Require Restaurants to Disclose Use of Partially Hydrogenated Oils

Trans Fat From PHOs Kill Thousands Each Year


While the government decides whether to ban partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs) from the food supply, it should at least require restaurants that use the trans-fat-laden artificial ingredient to warn customers of that fact, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In a legal petition filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), CSPI said that two-thirds of Americans surveyed think restaurants should indicate whether their food contains trans fat.

Starting in 2006, the FDA is requiring manufacturers of processed food to list trans fat on labels. That’s spurring many food processors to reduce or eliminate PHOs. However, restaurants are not required to provide any nutrition or ingredients information and thus have less incentive to improve their products.

Once considered safer than saturated fats, trans fats have now been shown to be far worse. Leading trans-fat researcher Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, calls trans fat a “metabolic poison,” because it raises LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, and lowers HDL, the “good” cholesterol. The Institute of Medicine recommended that people minimize their consumption of trans fat in order to reduce their risk of heart disease. Although small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in beef and dairy foods, most trans fat comes from PHOs.

“Deep-fried restaurant food is one of the biggest sources of trans fat in our diets and a major contributor to heart disease,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The truth is that while deep-fried foods will always be high in calories, they do not necessarily have to be bad for your heart. All restaurants should fry in liquid, non-hydrogenated vegetable oil like canola or soy. If they did, fried-foods would become healthier overnight. But as long as they continue to use such a dangerous artificial frying oil, they should inform their patrons.”

McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, and virtually all burger and fried-chicken chains fry in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. In 2002, McDonald’s promised to switch to a healthier, lower-trans oil, but reneged on that promise in 2003. (McDonald’s is being sued in California for breaking that promise.) Applebee’s, Chili’s, Denny’s, Red Lobster, and most table-service chain restaurants that deep fry do so in PHO. Two chain restaurants, Ruby Tuesday and Legal Sea Foods have switched to trans-free oil.

In May, CSPI petitioned the FDA to ban PHOs altogether, and launchedwww.TransFreeAmerica.org. Based on FDA data, CSPI estimated that 11,000 to 30,000 lives, perhaps many more, would be saved each year if PHO were replaced with more healthful products.

CSPI’s new petition asks the FDA to require restaurants that use PHO to place notices either on menus or on signs. FDA has authority to do that if it believes food is “misbranded,” which under the law can mean that the labeling fails to reveal material facts about the food. CSPI says that the presence of PHO should clearly be considered “material,” given the agency’s acknowledgment that PHO raises the risk of heart disease.

“Restaurants that continue to use this heart-attack-inducing ingredient should tell their customers about it just to avoid lawsuits, if for no other reason,” Jacobson said. “Partially hydrogenated oils may be a bit cheaper for restaurants, but a big verdict or two could encourage the big chains to check their math. Until the FDA bans PHO, it should at least make sure Americans know what they’re eating.”

CSPI maintains a list of foods that do and do not have partially hydrogenated oils atwww.TransFreeAmerica.org. That list represents only the tip of a big iceberg, since many thousands of food products contain PHO.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).