WASHINGTON - In letters to three dozen major restaurant chains and food manufacturers, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has asked the companies to “protect consumers’ health by changing from hydrogenated vegetable oil to less heart-harmful oils.” In short — “get an oil change.” Hydrogenated oils contain trans and saturated fats, which raise the risk of heart disease, the number-one killer of American men and women.

“While the health impact of trans fat has been vigorously debated over the past decade, the debate is now over. Trans fat raises blood cholesterol and therefore the risk of heart disease,” said Margo Wootan, senior scientist for CSPI. “Because of the medical evidence, CSPI expects the Food and Drug Administration to soon propose that trans fat be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels of packaged food. Since restaurants aren’t required to provide nutrition information, they should protect their customers’ hearts simply by switching from hydrogenated vegetable oil to oils that are lower in saturated and trans fat.”

“Some restaurant foods are loaded with trans fat. According to CSPI’s analyses, a king-size order of Burger King french fries contains 7 grams of trans fat. Add that to the 6 grams of saturated fat, and you’ve consumed two-thirds of the daily allotment of artery-clogging fat,” continued Wootan. “A fried onion with dipping sauce, a popular appetizer at steakhouses, contains 18 grams of trans fat — almost a whole day’s worth of artery-clogging fat, even before you count up the 39 grams of saturated fat.”

Trans fat is a “secret killer,” says CSPI, because it is not listed on nutrition labels. It is created when manufacturers hydrogenate liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid, more stable, and less greasy-tasting. But major oil suppliers have developed low-trans alternatives that work just as well.

“Americans now get one-third of all their calories outside the home — from restaurants, cafeterias, convenience stores, snack bars, and, especially, fast-food outlets. It’s critical that restaurants and food manufacturers ‘change their oil’ to help their customers avoid heart disease,” said Wootan.

In the late 1980s, following a nationwide consumer outcry, many restaurant chains stopped frying with beef fat or coconut oil. Today most restaurant chains including Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Denny’s, Chili’s, Bob Evans and many others use partially hydrogenated oils -- not true vegetable oil. Many of the hydrogenated oils used by these restaurants and in packaged foods are the nutritional equivalent of using beef fat, lard, or butter.

According to the June issue of CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter, “consumers can avoid trans fat by ordering restaurant foods that are low in all fats.” Such foods include: turkey or roastbeef sandwiches with mustard; grilled fish with a baked potato; grilled or barbeque chicken; and linguine with clam sauce.

“We are relieved that the FDA is finally addressing CSPI’s 1994 petition to include trans fat on Nutrition Facts labels. Now restaurants should do their part to prevent heart disease by not using shortening that is loaded with artery-clogging trans fat,” concluded Wootan