How Marriott and McDonald's Dumped Trans Fats
Hotel giant Marriott International is the latest company to jump on the bandwagon to ban trans fats. Beginning February 15, 4.8 million pounds of partially hydrogenated oils, a primary source of trans fats, will be replaced by unhydrogenated soybean-based oil in the deep fryers of more than 2,300 Marriott hotels in the United States and Canada.
Marriott's announcement comes on the heels of a statement from McDonald's saying it has begun using oils that are trans fat free in 1,200 of its 13,700 U.S. restaurants.
"We're very confident we've found the right cooking oil based on extensive testing and enthusiastic customer feedback," says McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker, who adds that the chain chose a canola-based oil that includes corn and soy.
"Thousands of customers have already told us the new oil delivers the same great taste in our fries." A traditional large french fries at McDonald's contains 6 grams of trans fat; a small, 2.5 grams.
Wendy's, KFC, Taco Bell, Loews Hotels, and Starbucks are just a few of the other chains that have recently announced plans to drop oils containing large amounts of trans fats.
Many of the trans fats eaten today are created by the partial hydrogenation of plant oils. That makes the fats more stable at room temperature and gives products a longer shelf life. But trans fats also tend to raise "bad" cholesterol levels and are linked to heart disease.
Crisco, which started making partially hydrogenated products in 1911, announced earlier this month that all of its shortening products have been reformulated to contain "zero grams of trans fat per serving." And even Girl Scout cookies have "zero trans fat per serving" this year, although certain varieties were trans fat free beginning in 2005.
However, if you look closely at the labels of many products billed as trans fat free, you'll still find the words "partially hydrogenated" or "shortening" among the ingredients. Federal law allows a product to be labeled as "trans fat free" if it contains less than half a gram of trans fat per serving.
Thus, many products that advertise themselves as trans fat free still contain trace amounts of trans fat. That can add up, depending on the serving size listed on the box and how much of the product you eat.
"Many of them have just under half a gram of trans fat per serving," says Jeff Cronin of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that would like to see the threshold lowered to 0.2 grams. "For those types of food, you might have two or three servings, and you can approach your daily limit of trans fat without even knowing it."
For example, on some Girl Scout cookies, the serving size is five cookies, while on others it is two cookies. Many people could easily eat more than two cookies in one sitting. (Can you eat only two Samoas?) However, the Food and Drug Administration says there is no need to eliminate trans fat from your diet completely, just to reduce your intake as much as possible within reason.
The switch to oils that are trans fat free hasn't been easy for many restaurants and manufacturers. Since 1998, Marriott has been phasing in products that are trans fat free, such as artisanal breads, salad dressing, pancake and waffle mixes, muffins, croissants, and cookies.
But the hardest food to get right was french fries. "Two years ago, we did oil and fries flavor profiles, and they were so off that we couldn't even consider doing a switch," says Brad Nelson, Marriott's corporate chef, who estimates that Marriott serves more than 6 million pounds of french fries each year. "The fries wouldn't hold their crispness and had an off flavor."
But over the past several years, the science of producing trans-fat-free oils has been improved, allowing more businesses to consider offering products that taste the same as the original. McDonald's says the only thing now limiting its ability to achieve broader distribution of its new oil is the availability of supplya need that many cooking oil companies are rushing to fill.
"When the marketplace raises an issue to the level that this has been raised, it pushes the people supplying," says Nelson. Marriott will purchase oil from Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, both major players. "It takes time for these things to come to market," says Mark Matlock, senior vice president of research at ADM, about the development of cooking oils that are trans fat free. "We've been working on this for quite some time."