New findings, reported at the annual conference of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO) in Vancouver this week, suggest that consumers are increasingly taking into account the consumption of trans fats when it comes to eating out.
Food service provider Aramark's Nutritional DiningStyles research shows that concern over limiting trans fatty acid intake has overtaken concern over limiting carbohydrate intake in importance. Some 21 percent of respondents said they were worried about trans fats compared to 18 percent who expressed concern over limiting carbs.
Trans-fats have been negatively linked to raising blood cholesterol levels and promoting heart disease. Beginning 1 January 2006, the FDA will require all food companies to label the amount of trans-fat in their products.
But as far as campaigners aiming to raise public awareness of trans fats are concerned, restaurants are the last frontier. It is clear that consumers are increasingly turned off by trans fats - an ACNeilson report noted that products labeled 'no trans fat' increased 12 percent to $6.4 billion for the 52 weeks ended October 2, 2004, compared with the previous 52-week period - but they are still largely in the dark when it comes to restaurant cooking oil.
This is something that Californian attorney Stephen Joseph wants to change. After successfully taking both Kraft and McDonald's to task over their use of trans fats, his goal is to provide consumers with the facts so that they make healthy decisions not only when they shop, but also when they eat out.
"I'm not critical of the oil manufacturers," he told FoodNavigator-USA.com last week. "They're trying to get the situation organized. Cargill has done a good job with its new low lineolic oil, and so has Bunge. The problem is getting the public to realize that there is trans fats in cooking oil, and that they should ask two questions at a restaurant. One, what type of oil do you use and two, is it partially hydrogenated?"
He has already had some success. The Tiburon project, which involved 18 restaurants in the San Francisco area converting to trans fat-free oils and advertising this fact, has according to Joseph shown promising results.
Oil suppliers appear more than happy to tap into this growing trans fat-free demand. Innova for example has eliminated partially hydrogenated soybean oil from its ingredient listing on its Vegamine range of hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, allowing a zero percent trans-fat nutritional claim to be made.
"With trans-fats being negatively linked to raising blood cholesterol levels and promoting heart disease, Innova is directly addressing the health concerns of Americans by modifying one of the most widely-used flavor enhancers in the industry," said Brian Glickley, Innova marketing manager.
Other major producers such as Cargill have also adapted their oils to meet trans fat-free requirements.
But what campaigners really want is another restaurant-driven initiative on the scale of New York. This summer, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) initiated a campaign to discourage the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable fat in the city's restaurants, thus raising the profile of the issue among restaurant-goers.
Estimating that 30 percent of New York restaurants use oils or fats containing partially hydrogenated vegetable fats in cooking or as spreads, the department sent letters and educational materials informing them of the dangers of trans fats, and how they can replace them in the kitchen, to more than 20,000 restaurants.
This, say campaigners, is vital as more people are eating out than ever before. Aramark's report suggests that US adults now consume on average more than 5.6 meals away from home each week. Breakfasts purchased away from home showed the biggest gain in 2005, up nearly 20 percent over last year.