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Published: Friday, 11/3/2006

Area restaurant owners weigh responses on trans-fat issue

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Artery-clogging trans fat may not be on the minds of area consumers when they order food at a local fast food or sit-down restaurant.

But the issue lately has been on the plates of several area restaurateurs and fast food franchise owners.

"It's actually been on our radar at Popeye's since last year," said John Brodersen, of Milwaukee, owner of the Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken franchise in Toledo.

The chain switched to non-trans-fat shortening for its chicken last year and significantly cut trans fat from its biscuits and mash potatoes just last month. "Under 1 percent is the limit we were trying to achieve on all of our products, and we're there," Mr. Brodersen said.

Restaurants are facing increased scrutiny for their high-calorie, high-fat fare, and the issue of trans fat in foods has been receiving a lot of attention.

A recent report funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that restaurants can help prevent obesity by offering and promoting more low-calorie, healthful items.

Health experts say trans fats raise levels of artery-clogging cholesterol and contribute to heart disease. Artificial trans fat is so common that the average American eats 4.7 pounds of it a year, according to the FDA.

New York City's board of health will vote on a proposal in December to ban most artificial trans fat in restaurants.

In June, Wendy's International said it was cutting trans fat from most of its menu items. On Monday, Burger King said it would do so at some restaurants, and a day later KFC Inc. said it would phase out trans fat from its chicken and other menu items. menu items.

One factor is whether the food can be made to taste as good using non-trans-fat preparation.

Roger Parker, president of the Northwest Ohio Restaurant Association, said the issue is likely to come up at the group's meeting next week.

"The thing is, these big corporate franchises can put millions into R&D and they're usually ahead of the curve in introducing things," said Mr. Parker, head of operations for Gladieux Catering.

Different cooking techniques can cut out some trans fat, Mr. Parker said. "Getting rid of all of it would be difficult," he added.

Paul Hubbard, owner of local Church's Chicken franchises and Captain D's Seafood restaurant, said the issue is a dilemma for restaurants.

Trans fat gives fried foods their popular taste. "People say they like the taste in the fat, but then they tell us they want 'healthy fat,'•" he said.

Church's switched to vegetable oil for cooking several years ago, changes its oil frequently, and drains grease from its chicken, "so the whole trans fat issue hasn't come up with us much," he said.

Tommy Pipatjarasgit, owner of Magic Wok Inc., said educating the consumer about healthier choices is a long-term effort.

His restaurants use soybean oil for cooking and none of their products have trans fat.

Robin Horvath, chief operating officer for Tony Packo's Inc., said regulating trans fat, as New York City is proposing, is a poor way to tackle the problem of obesity.

"Trans fat has become a lightning rod for this issue, but after this passes, we'll move on to the next cause," said Mr. Horvath, who added that he personally has battled weight problems.

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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