The Impact of Trans-Fat-Free Oil on Restaurants
Over the past decade, trans fat usage has dropped dramatically in restaurant and processed foods due to customer demand, but some trans fats, also called partially hydrogenated oils, have remained. While the use of trans fat products in food preparation can be tempting, thanks to their cheap prices and tasty flavors, the FDA decreed on June 16, 2015, that trans fats will be banned as an ingredient and cooking oil in the United States. The FDA has given manufacturers and restaurants three years to remove trans fats from food.1
What Are Trans Fats?
Artificially hydrogenated oils were invented in 1903 by Wilhelm Normann by adding hydrogen to oil. The hydrogenation process was used to turn oils into a harder, thicker material that was easy to transport and less likely to go rancid. The process slowly grew in popularity, until sales went through the roof during World War II, when butter rations led to more people using margarine. In the 1980s, researchers realized a diet high in saturated fat, which is found in some plant-based oils, could cause health problems, and so trans fats further grew in popularity as an alternative, particularly in restaurants.
This trend continued until the early 1990s, when advocacy groups, particularly the Center for Science in the Public Health began calling for trans fats to be banned. However, restaurants have been slow to take trans fats off the menu, as they can be used longer in fryers and make food less likely to spoil.
Why Are Trans Fats Being Banned?
Studies have shown that trans fats present some serious health risks. Partially hydrogenated oils have been linked to certain kinds of cancer, as well as high cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart attacks, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. A small amount of trans fats are naturally occurring, but it is the artificial trans fats that are currently under scrutiny. Naturally-occurring trans fats are found in small amounts in items such as meat and dairy, while vegetable oil that has been hydrogenated into a hardened form creates an artificial trans fat.
The FDA put labeling regulations in place several years ago, but in 2013, after the FDA failed to respond to Dr. Fred Kummerow's petition to ban artificial trans fats, Kummerow v U.S. Food and Drug Administration was filed.2 In 2013, the FDA announced that trans fats were no longer 'generally recognized as safe', and two years later the administration has officially announced new regulations.
The FDA's ruling has the US catching up to several European countries that have removed trans fats from their diets through government regulation. Even parts of the US, including New York City, California, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, already had strict regulations on the amount of trans fats allowed in food ahead of the federal ban.
What Does This Mean for Restaurants?
It is worth noting that while the FDA is undeniably tightening restrictions, their announcement and its legal ramifications may still allow some companies to use certain trans fats in their products on a case-by-case basis. Their official statement makes trans fats legally unsafe for consumption, but there are loopholes that will allow those in the food industry to file a food additive petition, which the agency will use to decide if that specific usage is safe.3 If you feel that partially hydrogenated oils are particularly important to certain menu items in your restaurant, you may wish to apply for this waiver.
For restaurants that choose to not apply for a waiver, the FDA has allowed the industry three years to remove trans fats from usage. This gives you time to converse with your suppliers, experiment with options, and find the best choice for your restaurant.
What Are Your Options?
For restaurants that need to remove trans fats from menus, there are a few options available. Bakeries that need to make pie crusts, biscuits, and pastries without partially hydrogenated oils will likely begin moving back toward lard, a more traditional option.
Part of the appeal of partially hydrogenated oils has been their ability to remain stable for long periods of time without going rancid. To achieve this without the use of trans fats, engineers have created, through careful breeding and genetic modification, new oils that will stay good for long periods of time. These oils are more healthy than trans fats, but not as healthy as their natural counterparts.4 There is also the fact that many of these oils are the result of GMOs, which some restaurants and consumers like to avoid.
Another option is palm oil. Palm oil is a naturally occurring vegetable oil that has seen a huge spike in usage in the United States since the labeling regulations went into effect for trans fats. However, this option has drawbacks as well. Palm oil is high in saturated fat, but the biggest concerns some people have are the environmental and human aspects of its production. Due to the sudden spike in its usage, rainforests near the equator (the only region where oil palm trees can grow) are being destroyed to make room for palm oil plantations. There are also reports of slave and child labor being used on these farms. Because of the social and environmental impacts of this in-demand oil, there are many resources available, such as GreenPalm, to help those who want to find sustainable sources for their palm oil needs.5
If you are not sure which trans fat replacement will work best for your restaurant, speak with your oil supplier to see what other options may be available to you. With the FDA's new regulations, there are many companies working quickly to research and develop new options to be available to manufacturers and foodservice operators before the three-year deadline is up.
1. Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils Federal Register. Accessed September 2015.
2. Researcher Files Lawsuit vs FDA After it Ignored His Petition Calling for Ban on Artificial Trans Fats Food Navigator USA. Accessed September 2015.
3. FDA Orders Food Manufacturers to Stop Trans Fat Within Three Years CNN. Accessed September 2015.
4. 4 Things You Should Know About the FDA's Trans Fat Ban Civil Eats. Accessed September 2015.