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TRANS FAT: GOING, GOING...JUST ABOUT GONE

This issue came to a head early last winter when the New York City Board of Health passed its no-trans-fat regulation on Dec. 5, 2006—a then-unthinkable act. But in the six months that followed, many chains and independent restaurants have raced to adopt what in retrospect are, in markets other than New York, self-imposed bans on trans fats. Look who’s gotten on board: Bennigan’s, Johnny Rockets, Burger King, T.G.I. Friday’s, McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Denny’s, Steak ’n Shake, Applebee’s, Carl’s Jr. and Starbucks, to pick just a few of the high-profile names. You really knew the game was over when Hardee’s, whose marketing of nutritionally incorrect sandwiches like the “Monster Thickburger” brought that chain back from the brink, capitulated two weeks ago.

But while units of these chains that operate in New York City will be in compliance by the upcoming deadline, implementation elsewhere won’t be as swift. If you check the fine print in the press releases in which these companies announce their conversion to zero-trans fat oils, you’ll note that most of them are phasing in zero-trans fat products slowly this year, pledging to take their initiative system-wide and menu-wide next year, or even later.

What’s the holdup? Supply. There is no shortage of cooking oil, nor is there a shortage of cooking oil that could be or has been processed into a zero-trans fat formulation. What is in short supply is cooking oil that can be processed into a zero-trans fat product while still producing the taste and texture profiles restaurant chains demand.

McDonald’s, for example, said it tested 18 varieties of oil, formulated into 50 different blends, before it found a version which left the taste and texture of its iconic French fries unchanged. Its new oil is canola-based, with some soy and corn oils mixed in. Right now, this blend is in use at about 3,500 of the company’s 13,700 restaurants in the U.S. Full implementation awaits the 2007 harvest of the oil seeds that will be processed to produce this proprietary zero-trans fat blend.

CKE Restaurants, Inc. (1,087 Carl’s Jr. units, 1,906 Hardee’s) says it will have its zero-trans fat oil conversion completed by Jan. 2008. It went with an all-canola product. “We have evaluated many zero- trans fat cooking oil alternatives and 100 percent canola oil was the ideal oil option to satisfy both our health and taste criteria,” says CKE president/CEO Andrew Puzder.

CKE went with a so-called “next-generation” canola oil that provides a high level of heart-healthy (omega-9) monosaturated fat, allowing the chain to impart a healthful spin to its product line. For CKE, at least, supply shouldn’t be an issue. “Now is a great time for them to convert,” says David Dzisiak, who runs the commercial oils business for CKE supplier Dow AgroSciences. “Due to the crop production cycle, it takes time to grow and produce the oil, so the time for operators to place their orders for future conversions is now, ensuring that we get the right amount of product produced.”

It’s likely that all the big chains that have announced pending conversions to zero-trans fat oils have placed their orders or otherwise tied up supplies of preferred oil stocks. It’s unknown, however, whether the other zero-trans fat oils that will become available after this year’s oil seed harvest will taste and perform exactly as other operators want, a highly subjective judgment only an operator can make. If you’re an independent restaurant or small chain eager to join the zero-trans fat parade, you might want to have your distributor sales rep bring you a few samples of several brands of zero-trans fat oil for testing before you decide what to use. Maybe a lot of samples.

But not to worry. There’s plenty to pick from. Cooking oils producers have been working on zero-trans fat solutions for years, and already provide multiple options in their foodservice product lines. More are on the way so, longer-term, supply and demand of the best-performing oils should balance out. In the short term, however, you might want to try before you buy.At the least, head for www.frytest.com and check out the results of its zero trans fat cooking oil contest. The information there will get you started on your search for the ideal zero trans fat oil for your restaurant.

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