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Study says fast-food outlets' use of trans fats varies by country
The Associated Press
Order French fries or hot wings at a McDonald's or a KFC in the United States and you're more likely to get a super-sized helping of artery-clogging trans fats than you would be at their restaurants in some other countries.
A study of the fast-food chains' products around the world found remarkably wide variations in trans-fat content from country to country, from city to city within the same nation, and from restaurant to restaurant in the same city.
The researchers said the differences had to do with the type of frying oil used, and the main culprit appeared to be partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is high in trans fats.
"I was very surprised to see a difference in trans-fatty acids in these uniform products," said one of the researchers, Dr. Steen Stender, a cardiologist at Gentofte University Hospital in Hellerup, Denmark, and former head of the Danish Nutrition Council. "It's such an easy risk factor to remove."
Trans fat raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol. Eating just 5 grams of it per day increases the risk of heart disease by 25 percent, research shows.
"Per gram, it is more harmful than any other kind of fat," Stender said. "It's a metabolic poison."
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is cooking oil that has been injected with hydrogen to harden it and give it a longer shelf life. Switching to liquid vegetable oils such as canola, corn, olive or soy eliminates the trans fat.
McDonald's, which promised in September 2002 to cut trans fat in half, and KFC parent Yum! Brands said the explanation for the differences is local taste preferences. But nutrition experts and consumer activists said it is about money: Oil high in trans fats costs less.
The Danish researchers tested products from the chains' outlets in dozens of countries in 2004 and 2005, analyzing McDonald's chicken nuggets, KFC hot wings, and the two chains' fried potatoes. The findings were reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
At a New York City McDonald's, a large fries-and-chicken-nuggets combo was found to contain 10.2 grams of trans fat, compared with 0.33 grams in Denmark and about 3 grams in Spain, Russia and the Czech Republic.
A large order of French fries at a New York City McDonald's contained 30 percent more trans fat than the same order from an Atlanta McDonald's.
Stender and other experts said many restaurants still use partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to save money because it does not spoil and can be used over and over for frying.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said his group has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to drastically limit the use of trans fats.
Jacobson said the cost might be a penny per order of fries or nuggets, and the taste difference would be minimal.
"I don't think people would mind paying a penny more or getting one less French fry to avoid heart disease," he said.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company