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Trans fat awareness has little effect on patrons’ eating habits

Trans fat awareness has little effect on patrons’ eating habits

Growing concern about trans fat in foods has several legislatures and foodservice operators taking swift action to ban the substance, but consumers still are not making dining choices based on the potentially harmful fat.

While consumers say that they are more aware and concerned about trans fat, so far that concern has not motivated them to eliminate it from their diets—especially when dining out, according to a recent survey by The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based global market research firm.

According to the survey, consumer awareness of trans fat jumped 5 percent in the past year. Among the adults ages 18 and older who were surveyed, more than 40 percent said they had a great deal of awareness or were quite aware of trans fats. Thirty percent said they were moderately aware, 23 percent said they were a little aware, and only 6 percent said they were not aware at all. NPD talked to more than half a million consumers to compile its survey results.

Trans fats have been found not only to raise levels of bad cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein, but also to lower levels of good cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein, increasing the risk of heart disease.

The survey data also revealed that the majority of consumers who are aware of trans fat believe that the foods they consume at restaurants contain more trans fat than those they consume at home.

“People’s perception and the reality is a disconnect,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD.

Riggs cited a 2003 report from the Food and Drug Administration that revealed that 40 percent of Americans’ daily intake of trans fat comes from food items typically consumed at home, such as cakes, cookies, crackers, pies and bread. The report also showed that 17 percent of daily trans fat intake comes from margarine alone.

While the percentage of consumers who are aware of trans fat has increased, some are more concerned about it than others are. Women, often the primary food decision makers for households, are more concerned than men are. According to the data, among consumers who are very or somewhat aware, 57 percent are women, while only 43 percent are men. Older consumers, particularly those who fall in the baby boomer category, which NPD defines as adults ages 45 and older, are far more concerned than their younger counterparts are. Among consumers who are very or somewhat aware, 50 percent are baby boomers, 20 percent are between the ages of 35 to 44, and 30 percent are between ages 18 to 34.

The more you know

But increased knowledge of trans fat doesn’t necessarily lead to a change in behavior. Despite being informed about the dangers of trans fat, not all consumers are motivated to alter their eating habits, NPD reports.

The least aware and least concerned about trans fats are heavy users of quick-service restaurants, which tend to be people ages 18 to 34, according to NPD. NPD defines heavy QSR users as those who make seven or more visits per month and light users as those who make one to three visits per month.

“[They are] young and don’t have to worry yet, or so they think,” Riggs said.

According to the survey, 46 percent of light QSR users said they would be less likely to order a QSR item that they knew contained trans fat, while only 21 percent of heavy users said they would be less likely to order the item.

The same respondents noted, however, that reading a health warning would change their behavior. After reading a warning, 63 percent of light users said they would be less likely to order the item, and 46 percent of heavy users said they would be less likely to order the item.

At full-service restaurants, 44 percent of heavy users and 33 percent of light users said they would likely forgo their favorite food if they knew it contained trans fat, the survey found. However, more than 60 percent of heavy users and 53 percent of light users said they would be less likely to order the item if they read a health warning about it. NPD defines heavy full-service restaurant users as those who make five or more visits in a three-month period and light users as those who make one or two visits in a three-month period.

Mixed messages

“What people say and what they do are different,” Riggs said.

Despite increased press attention about the dangers of trans fat and a desire by many lawmakers to curtail consumption of trans fat, the number of servings of restaurant foods containing trans fat is on the rise. According to the survey, as of summer 2006, servings of breaded chicken sandwiches were up 13 percent, fried cheese was up 13 percent, cookies were up 8 percent and French fries were up 2 percent.

Consumers behave similarly at home. According to NPD, when consumers read nutrition information on packaged foods, most are inclined to look at figures for “total fat,” along with “total calories” and “sugars.” In a ranking of items that consumers usually look for on labels, trans fat appeared 12th. The FDA began requiring last year that trans fat content be listed as part of the nutrition information of packaged foods.

Chain reaction

Consumers may be reluctant to alter their eating habits, but they may soon be without a choice. New York in late 2006 became the first city to ban the use of trans fat in restaurants, and other cities are considering similar legislation. In addition, a growing number of chains voluntarily are making the switch to nonhydrogenated cooking oils, which cuts trans fat content.

“The decision is being made for consumers,” Riggs said. “The question remains, ‘What is the cost to operators’ sales and consumers’ satisfaction?’”

Similarly, the impact on sales and consumer satisfaction remains to be seen.

In August, after two years of research and development, Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s switched to a nonhydrogenated cooking oil for its French fries and breaded chicken items in all 6,300 of its U.S. and Canadian restaurants. The move has significantly reduced the trans fat content across the chain’s menu.

“We’ve had very positive comments,” said Bob Bertini, a spokesman for Wendy’s. “Many customers say there is no difference in taste.”

While Bertini says Wendy’s can’t break out the impact, the No. 3 burger chain’s domestic same-store sales were up 1.8 percent in October, the chain’s fifth consecutive month of positive same-store sales.

San Diego-based Pat & Oscar’s introduced a trans-fat-free menu in June 2006. The change affected just four menu items, although one was the company’s signature hand-rolled breadsticks. After six months of research and development, the 17-unit fast-casual chain discovered a recipe that it says is both trans-fat-free and appealing to consumer tastes.

Although John Wright, the chain’s chief executive, said it was too soon for any metrics, anecdotally the change has been very well-received and sales have been positive for eight consecutive quarters.

Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory, which also began removing trans fat from its menu in June, said it has not experienced much consumer reaction at all.

“We got so few questions on this,” said Howard Gordon, senior vice president of business development and marketing for the 123-unit chain. “Consumers can’t tell the difference.”

Although early reports indicate a positive consumer response to trans-fat-free foods, operators who have not begun eliminating trans fats may still be vulnerable to backlash, Riggs said.

In addition, Riggs said, heavy QSR users account for a larger portion of restaurant traffic volume. According to NPD, heavy QSR users typically account for about 65 percent of traffic volume, while heavy full-service restaurant users account for just 60 percent. Riggs added that QSR would become even more vulnerable if its heavy users were to become more aware and more knowledgeable.

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