The recent ban of trans fat from some restaurant menus could be the beginning of a major shift in how restaurants might have an effect on consumer eating habits, says a market research firm.
According to a recent report by the NPD Group, consumer awareness and concern about trans fat is not enough to motivate them to take action and eliminate the potentially harmful fat from their diets - especially at restaurants.
Indeed, the report reveals that out of the two thirds of consumers who are aware of trans fats, the majority believe that the foods they consumed at restaurants contained more of these than the foods they consumed at home.
Yet despite this belief and the multitude of health warnings linked to the artery-clogging fats, people are still choosing high trans fat foods at restaurants.
According to 2006 data, servings of a number of the restaurant foods containing trans fat are growing, such as breaded chicken sandwiches (up 13 percent), fried cheese (up 13 percent), cookies (up 8 percent), and French fries (up 2 percent).
But now that restaurants are being targeted in the fight against trans fat, consumers will find it even more difficult to avoid the issue, according to NPD.
The group's report reveals that those consumers with greater awareness of trans fat said they want to eat less of it at restaurants, but there is no sign that those intentions are being carried out.
"The problem that consumers face today is the issue of what they believe to be harmful to them and what they continue to eat anyway. It seems that with the new trans fat ban from restaurant menus, the decision is being made for consumers," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD's foodservice industry expert.
Last week, New York became the first US city to implement a trans fat ban in restaurants, after the city's Board of Health voted unanimously to remove the fats from menus.
The city of Chicago is also currently considering legislation that would severely restrict trans fat levels in restaurants, as well as require written warnings where food containing these continues to be served. Similar campaigns underway elsewhere include an anti-trans movement in Miami, which hopes to successfully follow the New York model.
In fact, on the back of all of the commotion and negative publicity surrounding trans fats, the list of restaurants voluntarily switching to alternative cooking oils is growing by the day. KFC and Taco Bell recently followed in the footsteps of other chains removing the fats, such as Wendy's, Ruby Tuesday, Chili's and Legal Sea Food. Denny's family dining chain last week also announced plans to eliminate trans fats. Even grocery stores are keen not to be left behind in the trans fat race, with Kroger's announcing on Thursday that it is using trans fat free oil to fry chicken prepared in its stores. The group also said it is exploring other ways to reduce trans fats in other foods prepared in its stores.
But before restaurants were targeted in the fight against trans fats, labels on food packages were overhauled to include trans fat information. The new labeling system, implemented almost a full year ago, resulted in a huge industry reformulation effort, as food manufacturers sought to find ways to reduce or eliminate trans fats in their products.
However, according to NPD, consumers are slow to make choices based on trans fat content alone.
"Most consumers are more inclined to look for 'total fat' on food labels, along with 'total calories' and 'sugars'. In fact, trans fat appeared twelfth on the list of items that consumers usually look for on the 'Nutrition Facts' label," said NPD.