Burgers and chips - trans fats - home
In one of the ‘Extras’ sequences on the DVD release of Supersize Me, the Oscar-nominated 2004 film documenting the detrimental effects of an exclusively McDonald’s diet, there is an experiment titled, ‘The Smoking Fry’. In it, director Morgan Spurlock monitors the decomposition of various items from the McDonald’s menu alongside a burger and fries from an unnamed ‘regular’ restaurant.
He squints into the camera. “I’m just going to give you an idea of how this food is breaking down in your body.”
After 10 weeks, all the food is unrecognisable, except for the McDonald’s fries. “It looks like we bought them yesterday,” observes Spurlock. How long they would have actually lasted remains unknown because—shortly thereafter—an intern mistakenly threw them out.
This miracle of nature is made possible by hydrogenated vegetable oil, known also as trans fats or saturated oil. Because of its economic advantages, it is used in McDonald’s deep-fryers as well as in most areas of industrial food production. So-called because of their molecular formation, trans fats have recently been banned in New York City. The only European country in which they are legally prohibited is Denmark, which allows only trace amounts.
The reason for the ban is simple: hydrogenated vegetable oil can kill you. “Trans fatty acids are sufficiently similar to natural fats that the body readily incorporates them into the cell membrane; once there, their altered chemical structure creates havoc with thousands of necessary chemical reactions,” reported an on-line article, ‘The Oiling of America,’ by Mary Enig and Sally Fallon. Enzymes in the body get tied up trying to deal with these fats, an arduous task that results in the neglect of other fats in the body. The ultimate consequence of this can be “a massive blood clot leading to obstruction of a coronary artery and consequent death.” Hydrogenation was discovered in 1901. It was cheap, lasted virtually forever and, at the time, was believed to be healthier because it was extracted from the ‘good cholesterol’ of vegetables. Half a century would pass before the detrimental effects of trans fats became evident.
“Many important scientific studies indicate that a three percent increase in the consumption of trans fats can produce a 29 percent increase in cardiovascular disease,” physician Vicente Bertomeu, president of the Arterial Hypertension Section of the Spanish Society of Cardiology, told Metropolitan. “It’s a fat that is more dangerous because it’s treated to be more stable and more soluble. It’s homogenous and activates certain flavours. One other important reason trans fats are used in industrial food production is because the foods expire much later.”
Oliver Tickell is a journalist and campaigner on health and environment issues in the UK. “The reason for doing partial hydrogenation, comes down to the fact that standard soy oil or rapeseed oil is prone to oxidation, rancidity and degradation in the conditions of a deep fryer because it’s quite fragile,” he said. “So, for the food industry it is an inconvenience and they get rid of it by hydrogenation. In the process, they also produce trans fats.”
Though the Danish government has observed a 20 percent reduction in deaths from heart disease since their prohibition took effect on January 1st, 2004, other countries in Europe, like Spain, are lagging in even considering legislation. One reason for the Iberian legislative indifference is that the per capita consumption of saturated oils in this country is relatively low. Because of the absence of any legislation in Spain, all fast food outlets contain high percentages of trans fats, though not as much as in other countries. The amount can vary from country to country, as well as city to city, according to a study conducted by Steen Stender, the man considered single-handedly responsible for the ban in Denmark. Barcelona is right in the middle of the chart. The total fat in a 171-gramme serving of McDonald’s fries here will contain about 13 percent trans fats, while the same fries from Kentucky Fried Chicken will have only seven percent.
“The traditional Mediterranean diet doesn’t have trans fats, or they’re so few that they aren’t harmful,” said Vicente Bertomeu. “But every day, more and more people are buying food in commercial centres. If you look at the label, a pre-packaged merluza that you cook for six minutes in the microwave will tell you that it has saturated or hydrogenated vegetable oil. I would recommend that people read the package.”
Sound advice, but an October article in El Mundo reported that in Spain there is no current legislation regulating their inclusion in the nutritional labels of store-bought food. Indeed, a quick inspection of an amazingly inexpensive bag of madalenas lists only aceite vegetal. The words hidrogenadas and saturadas are conspicuously absent. Yet, these off-the-shelf pastries won’t expire for two months, which makes one wonder if it might be wiser to make that extra stop at the bakery on a more regular basis.
Both the Catalan baker’s and pastry guilds report that they don’t use saturated fats in any of their panaderías or pastelerías. “We have followed this issue, and I speak from the heart that we are completely against the use of hydrogenated oils,” said Joan Turull, president of the Gremio de Pastelerías. “One thing is very clear: the pastelería will survive in the face of all this globalisation only with quality and service.
There’s no other way. And if we begin to make a croissant with margarine, we’re going to lose our identity. We understand that perfectly and I believe that the quality of pastries in Catalunya is very high.”
Though Spain and the EU are still in the process of conducting studies, and are far from enacting any legislation prohibiting the use of trans fats, many food retailers are voluntarily making the transition to phase them out. McDonald’s, which sells more food to customers in Europe than any other single entity, has followed in the footsteps of other food service retail giants like KFC and Pizza Hut by recently announcing its intention “to achieve a substantial reduction in trans fatty acids in its cooking oil” by mid-2008.
“This isn’t necessarily in response to any legal status, but it’s more to do with our efforts in Europe to continuously improve the quality of our products,” Caroline Weber, Senior Manager for Corporate Relations, at McDonald’s Europe, told Metropolitan. “It’s very much about doing something which is best for our business, for our customers and for our suppliers.”
This sounds good, but McDonald’s made a similar, unkept promise in the US in 2002. Ultimately, they lost a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by the organisation Ban Trans Fats. When asked if history will repeat itself, Weber responded, “We’ve worked very closely with our suppliers on this because, obviously, without them it wouldn’t be possible, and we’re confident that the roll-out will be in all of our restaurants across Europe by mid-2008.”
Oliver Tickell is also optimistic about this commitment. “I would hope that they’ve learned from the American experience and that they are making this promise conservatively in knowing that they can fulfill it. A company like McDonalds shouldn’t make a mistake like that twice. So I have confidence that they will fulfill that promise.”