New York City Bans Trans Fats

A McDonald's french fry is, without question, the most-craved fast-food fare on the planet. The smell, texture and taste is so unique that even someone with a terrible head cold could likely identify one blindfolded.

New York City Bans Trans Fats

A McDonald's french fry is, without question, the most-craved fast-food fare on the planet. The smell, texture and taste is so unique that even someone with a terrible head cold could likely identify one blindfolded. And preparing these crispy golden sticks, McDonald's co-founder Ray Kroc wrote in his autobiography, requires "a ritual to be followed religiously."

But a new religion is taking hold and it's converting the fast-food industry by force. Trans fats - made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and found in taco shells, fried chicken, doughnuts, pizza dough and french fries - have been declared public health enemy No. 1. Although they're cheap and increase the shelf life of food, trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, and are now blamed for tens of thousands of heart attack deaths a year.

So last week, the New York City government, ignoring pleas from the fast-food industry, banned the use of trans fatty acids in restaurant food. By July 1, 2008, the Big Apple's 24,000 fast and full-service restaurants must eliminate nearly all of them from their food or face hefty fines. Other U.S. cities are considering similar legislation, and the Canadian government is expected to vote soon on a motion calling for a total ban on the artery-cloggers.

It all amounts to a fundamental shift in the way fast-food chains do business, one of the biggest transformations the industry has ever seen. Industry giants are worried that removing trans fat will compromise the taste and texture of their famous fare, which would cost them dearly with loyal customers. Then there's the issue of finding new suppliers capable of providing the millions of litres of oils needed to run a global conglomerate. "These companies can't just go down to Costco and pick up some non-trans fat oils," says Dennis Lombardi, an executive vice-president with Dublin, Ohio-based restaurant consultant WD Partners. "Is it problematic for the transition? Yes."

Some fast-food joints, well ahead of this curve, have already found suitable substitutes for their fries and chicken recipes (without, they claim, altering the taste). About 18 months ago, Jeff O'Neill, president of Priszm, which manages 500 of the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Canada, set up a task force, responsible for finding a substitute for trans fat - a concern, he says, that came up repeatedly in customer surveys. He knew that if the company did nothing, "customers may start taking action. Even if only in a small way, like watching the number of times they come to our stores." Canadian KFC franchises have begun replacing trans fats with canola oil (U.S. stores will use soybean oil). The shift will be completed by early January.

Others are having a tougher time. In 2002, amid much fanfare, McDonald's pledged to cut trans fats from its fries. So far, the company's food scientists have failed to find the perfect McSubstitute. The main concern is compromising those much-loved fries. And, as a result, risking the bottom line.

Still, there is little sympathy from the academics and advocates who've campaigned hard for healthier fast food, "They've had plenty of warning," scoffs Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of Food Politics. "Scientists have known since the 1970s that trans fats were bad. And since the early 1990s that they're worse than saturated fat." And yet, the large majority of fast-food patrons can't even define trans fat. "Things may be known in a general sense to experts and people who follow the literature, but it takes a lot to get on the public radar," says John Banzhaf, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. "Trans fat wasn't on the radar until a couple of years ago."

It is now. And yet, the drive-through traffic at popular fast-food stops continues to grow, along with the waist size of your average North American consumer. This year, receipts at quick-service restaurants in the U.S. account for 34.4 per cent of all restaurant sales - that's US$172 billion of the total US$501 billion - up from US$144 billion in 2005. In Canada, the quick-service industry has remained stable - $14.4 billion was spent last year at quick-service restaurants, up about two per cent from 2000.

In response to negative publicity during the last several years - due in part to the publishing of Fast Food Nation and the big-screen release of Super Size Me - many fast-food companies have added healthy options to their menus, but results have been mixed. "These items still represent a minor percentage of total sales," says Bob Sandelman, CEO of Sandelman & Associates, a marketing research firm. "And we're seeing the introduction of items on the other end of the spectrum - like Monster Thick Burgers at Hardee's, which do well among the industry's heaviest users - younger men between the ages of 18 and 34."

Burger King, the No. 2 fast-food chain in the world, has also attempted to turn things around by focusing heavily on the frat boy set, and has been rewarded with a spike in sales. When the company unleashed the "Enormous Omelet Sandwich," with 730 calories and 47 grams of fat, a Burger King spokesperson defended the controversial new breakfast option, saying it was for young men with active jobs ("not paper-pushers"). "In the mid-'80s, both Burger King and Wendy's put salad bars in every one of their restaurants to provide a healthier meal. By the early '90s, both had taken those salad bars out. Why? Because people weren't buying salads," says Harry Balzer, vice-president of the market research firm NPD Group. "Over the 30 years I've been watching how people eat, I've seen a lot of healthy things added to the menus but haven't seen us getting any healthier. We have the means, just not the will."

Since customers keep coming back for a fast-food fix, the shift from trans fats to a less harmful cooking product seems less to do with consumer demand and more about succumbing to legislation and, to a lesser extent, protecting against litigation. "Lawsuits had a tremendous impact on the tobacco industry, the auto industry and the drug industry," says Banzhaf. "Whether we like it or not, lawsuits are often the engine for change. When legislators don't legislate, litigators have to litigate. Litigation is a very blunt tool but is tremendously effective."

Banzhaf, a catalyst in several high-profile legal movements during the last three decades, starting with anti-smoking in the 1970s, considers obesity and trans fat to be the 21st-century tobacco. He claims there have been eight successful "fat lawsuits" against the fast-food business in the last few years - all of which have been settled out of court - and says litigation has sparked several changes, specifically at McDonald's: the introduction of healthier entrees and healthier desserts; more nutritional information about fat and calories; the end of supersizing; and the posted warning to customers in France to not eat at the restaurant more than once a week. When KFC in the U.S. announced that they'd found a way to eliminate trans fats from their recipes, a lawsuit against them was dropped. Rather than face long, costly courtroom battles, the industry giants would much prefer to fiddle with their menus.

"Over time, people will move away from things that are heavy in trans fat, just as over time people have moved away from cigarettes," says Banzhaf. "But it's not going to happen in a year, or two or even three years. That's why you need legislation, or, in this case, regulation. People complain, saying 'this is the food police.' But the government has been regulating what goes into our food, our drugs, even our chewing gum, for years."

Most experts anticipate that restaurants will have no trouble meeting the 2008 deadline with a product that will not significantly hurt business. Still, questions remain. How much will it cost? Will it have a long enough shelf life? Will new supply lines handle the demand? Now that local lawmakers have banned a food product approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is the industry vulnerable to a never-ending string of demands to curb unhealthy ingredients like sugar and salt? And, finally, will the substitutes really be healthier? After all, in the 1980s, health advocates championed the use of trans fats, in the belief they would be healthier than the saturated palm oil in wide use at the time. Last week, the American Heart Association warned New York health officials against rushing the ban, arguing that restaurants need time to find a suitable substitute, or they may revert back to ingredients high in saturated fat, which carry serious health risks as well.

While trans fats will soon be a mere footnote in history, don't expect this to spark a health craze. "There are two things that cause you to change your behaviour, and health is never one of them," says Balzer. "The issues are money and time." And the occasional french fry craving.

See also AGRICULTURE AND FOOD.

Maclean's December 25, 2006