by Radha Chitale
Following the example set by several fast food companies, Dunkin Donuts announced their donuts will be trans fat free by the end of 2007. The change sounds like good news. No matter how many donuts a person eats, they will consume fewer trans fats, which can cause heart diseases. But taking trans fats out of donuts might not be anything to crow over. In fact, eliminating trans fats is a hollow public relations move that will do little to help the nation eat better.
Touting zero trans fat content is misleading. There is still plenty of fat in a Dunkin Donut – the same amount, in fact. The new recipe simply calls for different oils, which decreases the amount of trans fat but increases the amount of saturated fat. The latest nutrition facts state that an Old Fashioned Cake Donut now has zero grams of trans fat and nine grams of saturated fat where it once had four grams of trans fat and five grams of saturated fat. At nine grams of total fat, one donut almost half the FDA recommended daily allowance of 20 grams of fat for a 2000 calorie diet.
Saturated fat is naturally present in foods like beef, butter, and palm or coconut oil. Adding more hydrogen atoms to the carbon chain of a saturated fat molecule creates a trans fat molecule, which is harder to break down and so acts as a preservative, i.e. a donut baked fresh in the morning will taste almost as fresh by closing or even the next day. Technically, saturated fat is better than trans fat because it will not raise LDL, the bad cholesterol, like trans fat does. But neither saturated nor trans fat is healthy. Both carry about equal risk of clogged arteries and can lead to coronary diseases.
The quest to reduce trans fat is no more than a public relations game. Food companies have a history of rushing to eliminate the latest cancer agent or health risk from their foods, especially if it makes their foods seem healthier. Remember the Atkin's Diet? Lo-carb/No-carb labels snowballed through grocery store aisles until you could barely find so much as a slice of bread.
Dunkin Donuts has plenty of company on the trans fat-free train. A closer look at some fast food restaurants shows a lot of zeros in the trans fat column and larger numbers in the saturated fat column. A Caesar Salad with Crispy Chicken from McDonald's has 1.5 grams of trans fat but 4 grams of saturated fat. Each of Subway's '6 grams of fat or less' sandwiches has no trans fats but at least 1 gram of saturated fat.
"If your competitors are making claims about trans fats, you just have to be on the right side of the issue. It's like keeping up with the Joneses," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a food industry consulting group in Chicago, in a Boston Globe article.
Eating fewer trans fats is a good thing and Dunkin Donuts has made a significant, and successful, effort to reduce them from their products. However, as long as the total fat content in a donut remains high, nothing has really changed – the same health and nutrition problems will persist. A differently composed donut, on top of the high-calorie, high-fat diet Americans already consume, will not make any dietary or health difference. A donut is still a donut.