The trans fat content of packaged foods has been in plain view on the Nutrition Facts table since December 2005. But until recently, restaurants have not been required to reveal their efforts - if any - to reduce trans fat usage.
Trans fats are formed when vegetable oils are processed into margarine or shortening. This chemical process, called partial hydrogenation, adds hydrogen atoms to liquid vegetables oils, making them semi-solid.
Unfortunately, partial hydrogenation also destroys the essential fatty acids - omega-6 and omega-3 fats - in unprocessed vegetable oils. The body needs these essential fatty acids to maintain healthy blood vessels, and they must be obtained from the diet.
Most trans fats are found in commercially prepared baked goods - pastires, donuts, cookies, muffins - and deep fried fast food. Consuming too much trans fat can increase your risk of heart disease by raising "bad" LDL cholesterol, lowering "good" HDL cholesterol and impairing blood vessel function.
Health Canada sets a target
In June 2007, Health Canada and consumer health groups set limits on artery-clogging trans fat in restaurant meals. The initiative, called the Trans Fat Monitoring Program, is the first of its kind; its goal is to get restaurants to limit trans fats to five percent of total fat in all foods.
Last month, Health Canada released the first report on how food chains are progressing with trans fat reduction.
This restaurant "report card" exposed the fat, trans fat, saturated fat and combined trans and saturated fat content of popular menu items between 2006-2007. Progress will be tracked for the next two years to reflect ongoing efforts to reduce trans fat content to the five percent goal.
Who's getting better or worse?
Some restaurants - A&W, Wendy's, Harvey's, Swiss Chalet and KFC - have made the switch to trans fat free cooking oils. Unfortunately, this report found menu items that didn't reflect these efforts.
For example, the trans fat content of A&W chicken nuggets increased by five percent since the start of the government's monitoring program in 2006. The A&W chicken burger, on the other hand, met government targets with one percent of total fat coming from trans fat.
Likewise, KFC didn't reduce the trans fat content of their chicken fries or chicken strips but KFC's crispy strip chicken was found to have less than one percent of total fat as trans fat.
Both KFC's crispy strip chicken and Swiss Chalet's chicken strips have less than one percent of total fat as trans fat. Not bad, but you still have to deal with the saturated fat which accounts for about 10 percent of total fat. (A steady intake of saturated fat also raises "bad" LDL cholesterol.)
Boston Pizza reduced trans fats in their chicken fingers and French fries to less than one percent of total fat, down from nearly 20 percent earlier this year. Wendy's restaurants have also changed their frying oil to drop trans fat content by six percent. Wendy's chicken nuggets have met Health Canada's target of less than five percent of fat coming from partially hydrogenated fats.
Burger King was called the trans fat "king" because over 20 percent of the fat in BK's chicken nuggets were found to be trans fats. However, Dunkin' Donuts' Jam Busters was the worst trans fat culprit with 45 percent of total fat coming from cholesterol-raising trans fats.
Some restaurants, like Tim Horton's and McDonald's, made small reductions in the trans fat content of certain menu items, only to raise total fat and saturated fat content. For instance, while a Tim's chocolate donut has the lowest amount of fat coming from trans fat, nearly 50 percent of its fat comes from saturated fat.
Eat less trans fats
Trans fats make foods taste and feel better in your mouth but they're notoriously bad for your heart. For some time now, we've known that trans fats are similar to saturated fats in that both clog arteries by raising levels of "bad" LDL-cholesterol.
Health Canada indicates that people aged 15 to 25 years old eat an average 38 grams of trans fat each day. Nutrition researchers have shown that having about five grams of trans fat each day over many years can boost heart disease risk by up to 25 percent.
Experts recommend that no more than 10 percent of total calories come from "bad" fats, trans plus saturated fat combined. For a person who eats 2,000 calories per day, that's no more than 200 calories worth (22 grams) of trans plus saturated fats - roughly the equivalent of a six-pack of McD's chicken nuggets.
Here are some tips to help you consume less trans and saturated fat from restaurant meals:
- Don't clean your plate. Ask for a doggie bag before you finish your meal.
- Ask for substitutions - salad instead of fries or steamed vegetables instead of mashed potatoes.
- Request low-calorie items even if they aren't on the menu - fat-reduced salad dressings, salsa for a baked potato or fresh fruit for dessert. If you don't know what's in a dish or don't know the serving size, ask.
- Ask for nutrition information. The more pressure consumers put on restaurant chains, the sooner you'll see nutrient values of your favourite menu choices.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.