It seems shame is Canada’s preferred tactic for working over the nation’s naughty fast food joints.
And so, shouldn’t the king have scarlet cheeks?
Burger King was singled out as the “king” of trans fat recently, and its embarrassingly high levels were exposed for all to see.
This late-December development in Canada’s war on trans fats is federal Health minister Tony Clement’s latest response to an earlier threat against the food industry.
Meanwhile, Calgary became the nation’s first city to really take charge.
Canada’s boomingest metropolis instructed its restaurant industry — which serves 1.2 million people — that starting January 1, all margarines, spreads made with margarine and oils used for cooking must be limited to a maximum of two per cent trans fats of the total fat content.
Hooray for Calgary!
Now, how hard was that? Most restaurants moved into compliance early and are reporting happy customers today who have quickly adjusted to the slight change in taste.
Calgary is now part of an elite club that includes New York City and Tiburon, California.
Clement, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be tyrannical about it, so he’s using a softer approach to quell the silent killer.
In June, he asked the food industry to voluntarily reduce trans fats to the lowest levels recommended by the Trans Fat Task Force. It recommends two per cent for vegetable oils and margarines and five per cent for other foods.
Clement added that he would be monitoring their voluntary progress.
Guess what happened? Not surprisingly, Burger King and most other restaurants sat on their trans-fatty hindquarters and did nothing.
The first results of Health Canada’s monitoring of this voluntary movement, or lack thereof, were released December 20.
Burger King was crowned the “king” of trans fat by Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation CEO Sally Brown, a sentiment Clement backed up with gusto.
Sticks and stones, I say. I think Sally Brown would agree.
“Trans fats are not a choice; they’re a killer,” Brown, who chaired the task force that advised Clement, told the media.
Unlike the feds, her foundation is not mainly in the business of shaming; it wants action and for the federal government to ban trans fats completely.
The Canada Heart and Stroke Foundation estimates trans fat consumption accounts for 3,000 to 5,000 deaths in this country from heart disease each year.
Trans fats raise the levels of low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol in the body and can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.
An industrially manufactured fat, it has been accurately nicknamed “plastic fat.”
It is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable or plant oils to produce a semi-solid shortening that helps a food product keep its shape and prolong its shelf life.
Its only redeeming quality is that it increases profit margins.
Trans fats are twice as harmful as saturated fats and far more prevalent in fast food fare.
Take a look at some of our favourite fast foods items.
A&W chicken nuggets (monitored in October 2006) contained 13.8 per cent fat; 29.2 per cent of that is trans fat; 16.5 per cent is saturated fat.
The good news is, in March 2007, A&W chicken “strips” measured just 10.4 per cent fat; 2.1 being trans fat and 8.4 being saturated fat.
McDonald’s chicken nuggets (monitored in September 2006) measured 22.1 per cent fat; 4.6 per cent of that was trans fat; 16 per cent was saturated fat.
Burger King earned its crown for selling fries with a trans fat content 8.8 times higher than the task force recommendation; its hash browns were 8.4 times higher; its fish filets (who on earth eats those?!) were 7.5 times higher.
Let’s take a closer look at one of those hash browns.
It is 19.2 per cent fat; 41.9 per cent of that is trans fat and 20.8 is saturated fat, according to Health Canada’s 2006-2007 trans fat monitoring results (these can be viewed at www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/nutrition/gras-trans-fats/tfa-age_e.html#4).
Companies like Burger King are not making changes until they have to and some are dragging their artery-clogged feet more slowly than others.
Clement hopes that a campaign of shame will provoke consumers to cast their votes against trans fats and the guiltiest food chains.
His theory is that the market will harmoniously weed out the trans fats via the natural and trusty supply-and-demand system.
This could happen.
“Heart and Stroke Foundation polls show that the 75 per cent of Canadians are aware of the harmful effects of trans fats, but they need to be able to identify them,” said Brown.
Where nutritional information is available on food packages in grocery stores, there has been a marked difference in consumer purchasing away from trans-fatty foods.
The next step, says Brown, is to get this same information into restaurants.
Until that happens, however, food joints won’t change their ways and self-regulate the way grocery stores have.
At least Clement has another threatening deadline for the food industry.
If there is no significant progress to reduce trans fat levels by June 2009, Canada will introduce national limits.
Go get ‘em, Tony!
But don’t be fooled into thinking the battle against fat has been won, even at that point. The war against trans fat could be creating a whole new problem.
Tim Horton’s, for example, has made considerable progress in reducing the trans fat levels in its doughnuts. But unfortunately, these have been replaced with saturated fats, which are almost as bad.
“Health Canada’s analysis of doughnuts underlines this problem, where those companies that have been successful in lowering trans fats seem to have replaced them with less harmful, but not heart-healthy saturated fats,” says Brown.
If you look closely at Health Canada’s monitoring charts, you’ll see that where some foods have reduced the trans fats, the overall fat content has actually increased.
This is not good for the diet, and it’s still not good for our hearts.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.