A Partially Hydrogenated Oils Project

I wrote this piece many months ago but the project as a whole was underwhelming and uninteresting. I recently reread what I had done and while 20/20 won’t be calling me to record a segment, it’s entertaining for what it is. Everything after this paragraph was written in late 2010 so never-mind any naive comfort in relying on nuclear energy, or pre-holiday jitters.

Cat Eating Conrad
Kitty prefers the wrapper

 

Over the past few weeks I have sent various fast food restaurants the following email:

Hello,

I’m concerned that many of your products still contain the dangerous partially hydrogenated oils. What is being done to remove these ingredients from the products?

Thank you,
Jason

There is plenty of information on the web about why these oils are dangerous so I won’t repeat them here. What irritates me is that these fast food restaurants boast a “healthy” menu while still using these oils. They serve as great (and cheap) preservatives but are an example of American greed at its finest. Why get rid of these ingredients if people still buy the products, they extend the shelf life and the FDA allows them to use them. While the evidence of their danger is prevalent, they are still legal in most states/cities, and most companies have found rather creative ways of getting around using the dreaded term of “Trans Fat” in their menu. Our grandchildren are likely to laugh about how we used to eat these plastic oils in the same way we’re awed at the fact that cocaine was once in Coke, or that smoking on a plane while pregnant was a norm.

“Trans Fat” has become a recent buzz word and any product that no longer includes trans fat is certainly going to advertise it. The problem is that when a product advertises “No Trans Fat” it doesn’t actually mean it contains no trans fat, it just means it contains less that .5 grams per serving. While a gram is an indisputable unit of measurement, a serving means absolutely nothing. A company can simply play with the serving size until the amount of trans fat is less than .5 grams and slap the “No Trans Fat” label on the package. While it’s a creative way to abusive the questionably corrupt system, it’s simply lying.

What if these were legal and/or acceptable?

* Your girlfriend tells you she is STD-free since she has less than .5 grams of AIDS in her body.
* Your “free-checking” account takes “.5 grams” worth of money out of your account as a monthly fee.
* Your life boat allows in less than .5 grams of water per minute.

Sometime you just want zero to actually mean zero. Anyways, the above email went to the following fast food companies…

    McDonalds
    Subways
    Domino’s
    Wendy’s
    Taco Bell
    Kentucky Fried Chicken
    Burger King
    Carl’s Jr.

The following are the answers I’ve received:

McDonalds

McDonalds was the first restaurant to respond to my email, but they didn’t show any signs of actually reading it…

Hello Jason:

Thank you for taking the time to contact McDonald’s for ingredient and allergen information.

To obtain the most up-to-date ingredient and allergen information for McDonald’s standard menu items, visit the website at http://www.mcdonalds.com. Available allergen information will always be listed on the menu item’s ingredient statement.

McDonald’s has worked with the Food Allergy and Anaphlaxis Network (FAAN) to help consolidate all allergen information within our ingredient statements. The FAAN encourages customers with food allergies to regularly read ingredient statements because ingredients may have changed. Again, McDonald’s recommends you visit the website, http://www.mcdonalds.com, for the most current information about our products. We also recommend that you speak with your health care provider if the information you are seeking cannot be found on our website or printed materials.

McDonald’s has provided nutrition information on our menu items for more than 35 years. One of our goals is to provide accurate and accessible nutrition information to our customers by providing a clear, consistent approach to communicating nutrition information. Today, customers can obtain nutrition information on our standard core products through five sources:

http://www.mcdonalds.com
McDonald’s trayliners
McDonald’s Nutrition Facts Brochures
Toll-Free Number — 1-800-244-8227
McDonald’s Packaging

Again, thank you for taking the time to contact McDonald’s and we look forward to serving you again soon.

Jennifer
McDonald’s Customer Response Center
ref#:7243506

Fontana de Il McDonalds
Roman McDonald's, Circa 800 b.c.

I would guess that this is somewhat of an automated response to anyone who asks a question about nutrition. I found their nutritional information online before sending my original email. That’s how I knew they used partially hydrogenated oils in the first place. All they are telling me here is that they are publicly declare that they use these oils, but they don’t really want to talk about it. Their thought process is probably similar to that of an aggressive big-brother. He flares his hands in the air as he approaches his little brother warning him that if he gets in the way, it’s his fault. While it wouldn’t hold up in court, it makes sense to a 12 year old boy. Like the big brother, McDonalds takes the full disclosure approach in hopes that the victim’s passive ignorance doesn’t ask questions.

I followed up with McDonalds asking that they actually read my question and answer it. They may have to use more keys than cntrl-c and cntrl-v, but I think they can do it. [March 2011 edit: They could not]

Subway

The response to my email that I received from Subway was the first time I actually felt like I was dealing with a real person (I won’t use her name here since she seemed like a nice lady). Here’s her original response…

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dear Jason:

Thank you for your interest in Subway nutritional information. We do not use partially-hydrogenated oil in our products. All of our standard menu items are free of artificial trans fat. Some of our cheeses and meat contain naturally occurring trans fat.

On our website http://www.subway.com you will be able to find our nationally offered products broken down by Nutrition/Ingredient information. For countries other than the USA visit http://www.subway.ca and select the country.

All information is updated regularly, unlike printed material they may be out dated.

A Printer Friendly Version can be found by highlighting the maroon Menu/Nutrition tab at the top of the main page. Select Nutritional Information on the right of your screen select Nutrition Data Tables

The local items may be found under the heading 6 Limited Time Offer/Regional Subs. For those local items not listed you will need to ask at your local Subway.

Again, thank you for choosing Subway.

Sincerely, The Lady from subway who responded to me

Rome Subway

I did my homework before sending this email out. If a site didn’t list partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredient list I didn’t send them an email. I double checked my research and this is what I found:

FAT FREE ITALIAN DRESSING Water, vinegar, sugar, corn syrup, salt, Parmesan and Romano made from cow’s milk cheese (part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), Contains less than 2% of garlic onion juice, molasses, phosphoric acid, xanthan gum, whey, with potassium sorbate and calcium disodium EDTA as preservatives, dried bell peppers, propylene glycol alginate, yeast extract, spice, buttermilk, lemon juice concentrate, dried garlic, sodium phosphate, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, caramel color, enzymes, vitamin E acetate, oleoresin paprika. Contains milk.

While those ingredients certainly sound appetizing, this goes against the lady’s email, and never one to back down from the anonymity of an Internet argument, I sent this email in return:

Is this the correct link? http://www.subway.com/subwayroot/menunutrition/nutrition/frmusingredients.aspx

It shows the oils used in the salad dressing. What is meant by “standard menu? Is it possible I could walk into a local Subway and be served partially hydrogenated oils if I unknowingly order outside of the standard menu?

To be honest, I didn’t expect any response to this. When I first became aware of partially hydrogenated oils in around 2004 I did recall that their breads were baked with it. However, they did make positive strides to reduce these oils and released a Press Release to declare they are now trans fat free. But why the the trans fat in their “fat free” dressing? I got this very honest response:

Okay, it looks like there is an older ingredient statement up there that needs to be updated. The Fat Free Italian dressing is completely free of total fat, saturated fat and trans fat. Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention.

The site hasn’t changed yet, but at least she admitted it was a mistake. I plan to go into a Subway restaurant and ask for an updated list of ingredients, but it’s likely just as out of date, if that is the truth at all. There’s little point in discussing the issues with the 16-year-old sandwich artists on duty.

Domino’s

Domino’s sent the very direct and honest response to my email:

Jason,

Thank you for contacting us at our World Resource Center.

To comply with trans fat bans across the nation, each of our ingredients have less than 0.5 grams of artificial trans fat per serving. Very few of Domino’s Pizza products contain partially hydrogenated oils and these contain zero or less than 0.5 grams Trans Fat per serving.

The total combined product (i.e. a pizza or oven baked sandwich) may have more than 0.5 grams of trans fat, but each ingredient going in does not have more than 0.5 grams of artificial trans fat.

Also, we have naturally-occurring trans fat in some of our products, as you know, like in some of our meats, but it is the artificial trans fat that we have worked to bring down to 0.5 grams or less due to the local laws.

Sincerely,

Denise

Domino’s Pizza Customer Care

They’re basically saying “ya, we know what we’re doing, but you can’t stop us” and they’re right. They’ve taken the absolute minimum effort required to remove trans fat from their products. They didn’t really say anything about efforts to get rid of the oils, just that they are doing what they have to, not what they should do.

We Hit a Pizza
Domino's Pizza is an often unavoidable driving hazard

[July 2011 conclusion] I was expecting to wrap this up concluding that these fast food companies skirt around the questions while making cut-and-paste attempts at making me go away. Instead the conclusion is that most fast food companies don’t reply to my emails.

Christmas Westie
Christmas Westie comfortably smiles at the safety of nuclear power. Here's to a happy and safe 2011!

 

5 Comments

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  1. Love this blog. Definitely reminded me to keep reading those labels. I’ve stayed away from all the fast food joints….but damn those pizza places!

    Like

  2. Nice work gumshoe!!

    Like

  3. Hey, I’m a co-worker of Cristina’s and I’ve mentioned to her I love what you write! She tells me I should comment so I will since I loved this post. It drives me crazy that companies can “say” 0 grams when really, there is a little bit in there! And I eat wheat bread because “it’s healthy” and yet the healthy-wheat-bread my boyfriend… who doesn’t read labels… came home with last week HAD hydrogenated oils in it! Very frustrating.

    Like

  4. I know a guy who used to own a subway restaurant and I asked him to read the ingredients off the container of southwest sauce. It clearly stated partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient. I find it hard to belief they changed their recipe for the health conscious.

    Like

  5. I’m glad that your article is still posted on the internet- I found it helpful & is also a reminder that companies will just do whatever (I mean that in the laziest sense of the term) to just pacify those with legitimate health concerns….such a bummer. But I was stoked to read your article & will pass it along to others concerned about hydrogenated oils in fast food- an unending topic amongst my fast food eating friends and me (the healthier eater)

    Like

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