Restaurants Chew On Trans Fats Issue

The New York City Board of Health's proposal to ban trans fats from restaurant menus could mean a lot of work for some restaurant chains in the coming months. But so far, it looks like there will be no rush from those who are already trans-fat-free to advertise their status.

Only Wendy's, which now uses zero trans fats frying oil, is introducing product packaging to promote that fact. It will roll out systemwide by next month, said Bob Bertini, a spokesperson for the Columbus, Ohio-based chain of 6,300 restaurants.

Wendy's uses a blend of soy and corn oil for frying and has also removed the ingredient from its burger buns and salad dressings. The chain began its search for a trans-fat free oil several years ago.

Still, Bertini said that Wendy's opposes a local ban: "Nutrition and ingredient regulation should be done at the federal level," he said.

Subway, which operates more than 300 stores in the New York area, also has a menu low in trans fats. Sandwiches have a "negligible" amount; the one menu item still containing trans fats is a seasoned bread topping. The chain aims to have that topping trans-fat-free by the end of the year, said Les Winograd, spokesperson for Milford, Conn.-based Subway.



Subway doesn't promote its trans-fat-free menu, although "it's something that might actually benefit us," Winograd said. However, he said he doubted the chain would ever take a "never had it, never will" approach to advertising its lack of trans fats.

Au Bon Pain, a Boston-based bakery chain with several dozen locations in New York, introduced zero trans fats cookies, muffins and sandwiches back in 2004. The company did not return phone calls seeking comment.

At McDonald's, executives say they are still searching for a trans-fat-free cooking oil that will not alter the taste of its French fries. "Concerning trans fats, McDonald's knows this is an important issue which is why we continue to test in earnest to find ways to further reduce TFA levels," said Walt Riker, vice president of corporate communications for Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's.

As for the ban, "we will closely examine the Board's proposal," Riker said.

New York City's Board of Health, which announced plans of the ban on Tuesday, will vote on the ban in December. If passed, the ban will become fully functional--encompassing cooking oils plus chips, salad dressings and baked goods--by July of 2008.

Health professionals deem trans fats more damaging to arteries than even saturated fats. Trans fats occur when hydrogen is added to oils to make them longer-lasting; frying foods can also create trans fats, and some meat and dairy items contain natural trans fats.

New York would be the first city in the country to ban trans fats from restaurant menus, although other municipalities, among them Chicago, have discussed such a ban.

The restaurant industry has reacted predictably: "The restaurant industry has made great strides in providing a wide variety of choices and options that can accommodate the dietary needs and preferences of restaurant guests," said a prepared statement from the National Restaurant Association, the Washington-D.C. based restaurant lobbying group.

"However, mandating that restaurants provide menu labeling and eliminate trans fat from their prepared foods is an unreasonable, one-size fits all approach," the statement said.

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