Trimming trans fats from a menu is widely regarded as a straightforward and simple exercise, but vigilance is still required to prevent products slipping through the net. Siobhan O'Neill reports
At first glance, for many caterers, signing up to the Department of Health's Responsibility Deal pledge to remove trans fats from products is pretty straightforward. Many manufacturers and suppliers have been finding alternatives to trans fats for years, and most supermarkets sell few products that still contain them. But finding alternatives is not without its implications, and companies looking to do so need to go in with their eyes open to the facts.
Back in the 1960s, it was impossible not to eat trans fats. The process of hydrogenation of oils to make them more solid at room temperature created a cheaper alternative to animal fats with a handy by-product of a longer shelf life, and they were in everything.
But by the 1990s, doctors had realised that although the health benefits of hydrogenated vegetable oils - in margarines for example - had been promoted as an alternative to animal fats, in fact these products were raising our cholesterol levels and contributing to heart disease. Campaigns raised awareness, consumers demanded changes and the scramble was on to remove trans fats and find new ways to safely use vegetable oils.
The consequence has been that many companies had in fact removed trans fats from their food and cooking processes way before the Responsibility Deal pledge was drawn up.
"From a Yum! [owners of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell] point of view, back in 2005 it was globally recognised that there would be health benefits in moving away from trans fats, and we made a commitment to the removal of any artificial trans fats by 2007 which we subsequently achieved," says KFC's head of food assurance, Mark Baxter.
Philippa Wallis, nutritionist for pub and restaurant operator Mitchells & Butlers, agrees. "Compared with some of the other more complex pledges, this one was really straightforward because we'd been working on it for over three years, and supermarkets had been removing trans fats and hydrogenated vegetable fats for decades, so our supply chain has been completely free of them since March this year. The majority of our food has always been trans fat-free because the technology in ingredients performing this function is so widely and commercially available now. It has been business as usual for our suppliers to use alternative ingredients," she says.
"It was a very easy pledge to sign up to," says head of franchising and communications at Domino's Pizza, Georgina Wald. "In fact it was too easy, which is why we didn't go with the first wave of the Responsibility Deal. We felt it would be disingenuous and not in the spirit of the deal to just sign up to the one thing we were already doing, so we waited until we were in a position to put calories on our website, and then we signed up for trans fats and out-of-home calorie labelling at the same time, and we've now signed up for the salt pledge as well."
There are two key areas to look for in eliminating trans fats: from frying oils and from bought products such as pies, quiches, breadcrumb-encrusted items, cheesecakes, pastries, biscuits and croissants.
But Gary Baverstock, company nutritionist at contract caterer Vacherin, points out a crucial consideration for those who have still to make the switch. "It might be harder to monitor ingredients if a company has many bought-in products, but it's not impossible. There might be financial reasons why a company couldn't switch, because they couldn't afford to. Unfortunately, the hydrogenation and trans fats are used because they're cheaper, giving you cheaper products. Money does come into it at the end of the day," he says.
Baxter agrees. "It certainly is more expensive to move to the high-oleic sunflower and rapeseed oils. It cost us about £1m to switch but it's an important part of our CSR strategy to make those nutritional improvements. And even though it took £1m of profit off our bottom line - because we didn't pass that cost on to the customers - it's the right thing to do for the consumer and it will drive long-term commitment to the brand. Doing the right thing in life tends to be more costly, but that's not a reason not to do it," he says.
The Pledge Artificial Trans Fats Removal
(a) We do not use ingredients that contain artificial trans fats.
(b) We are working to remove artificial trans fats from our products within the next 12 months.
There are two parts to the artificial trans fats removal pledge, in recognition of the fact that some organisations will have taken the decision not to use artificial trans fats, others have already removed them from their products, and some are still working to remove them.
Tips for removing trans fat
â- Watch out for imported products, which are more likely to contain trans fats than those produced domestically. â- Consider whether a central production kitchen could produce batches of cookies or muffins that can be frozen, and mass produce pasta sauces that can be distributed throughout the organisation. They will be cheaper than bought-in and will taste better.
â- Switch frying oils to high-oleic rapeseed and sunflower oils, which are now readily available. Avoid the cheaper palm oil blends which are not ethically sustainable.
â- Future-proof your solutions because the science and technology of oils will move on.
â- Train your chefs to understand the importance of trans fat reduction and to have good oil management habits.
Helping chefs make the right choices
Contract caterer Vacherin replaced hydrogenated vegetable oils in all cooking processes with rapeseed and olive oils company wide.
To communicate the changes, it produced a healthy-eating guide, which aims to educate chefs, staff and customers to use healthy cooking products and practices. It produced a guide to menu management and healthy menu planning and laid out a strict structure to help chefs make the right choices. And it carried out training sessions for all chefs with a focus on discussing the issue of trans fats and finding replacements.
Company nutritionist Gary Baverstock explains that the company also put suppliers under pressure to bar the use of trans fats. "We're small, we're quite bespoke, if we're going to have quiches we make them and we usually make all our own cookies and muffins," he says.
"My advice would be try to make as much from fresh as possible, avoid bought products and create a better relationship with suppliers. Investigate the products they provide - check the ingredients - and demand the removal of trans fats from products. Go in quite tough. If you're wishy washy about it they might still come into your business."
Tracey Rogers, managing director of Unilever Food Solutions
Eliminating ingredients that contain trans fats was one of our first priorities when signing up to the Responsibility Deal. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is even aligned to the Responsibility Deal in the removal of trans fats. At the end of 2011, our entire Unilever Food Solutions UK & Ireland portfolio was free from trans fats and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
We want our customers who use our essential kitchen ingredients to be assured that they're serving good, honest dishes that still taste great. That's why our team of nutritionists and expert chefs work closely together to ensure we're providing clear GDA and information on our ingredients and recipes.
Focus on frying oils
The key procured products to look out for are cheesecakes, flans and sponge-based desserts, pies, pastry-based products and breadcrumb encasing, which pose the most challenges in terms of removing hydrogenated vegetable fats, believes Philippa Wallis, nutritionist for Mitchells & Butlers.
"But the alternatives are out there and you need to challenge suppliers and work closely with them to find the right solution that works for you without compromising taste or price to the guest," she says.
All the pub operator's suppliers submit a specification which includes a full ingredient breakdown for every product before it's approved, so it has the transparency in the supply chain to make sure that no hydrogenated fats slip in.
"The frying oils is where most of the trans fats still remain in some outlets because the high saturated fat content means they have a longer frying life and are cheaper to purchase," Wallis explains.
"The target is less than 2% trans fat but the levels will increase the more the oil is heated, so our oil for frying is less than 1% and we look after it to maintain food quality by making sure that fresh oil is used every two days, we don't turn our fryers on until we need to use them and that will help minimise any increase in the level of trans fats. Oil management best practice is promoted to all our team members through training."