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Cooking oil, now trans-fat free, allows for healthier food options

March 23, 2007

Most college students have heard of the dreaded “freshman 15,” referring to pounds that students are likely to pack on their first year away from home.

Freshman weight gain is thought to take place for different reasons, from the temptation to eat whatever and whenever, to eating in response to stress, anxiety and homesickness, according to kidshealth.org. 

Some of the blame is transferred to dining halls and on-campus eateries. Chartwells, the company responsible for providing dining services to UW-River Falls students, recently made a change with the intention of helping all students avoid unnecessary weight gain.

Chartwells campuses have now fully switched to using non-hydrogenated, trans-fat free canola or olive oil for cooking and non-hydrogenated canola or soybean oils for frying, according to a February press release.

Mike Owen, the production manager for Chartwells on campus, said the company in the process they made the decision to switch to zero trans fat oil, but it was up to individual campuses to test different brands before making the choice that was best for their University.

“River Falls tested four different brands of oil. We looked at how the product worked, flavor and how well it held up frying large amounts of product,” Owen said. “Once the results were in, the best product was brought in to the distributors for the school to use.”

Trans fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. While small amounts of trans fat are found naturally in animal-based foods such as dairy, meat and poultry, higher levels can be found in vegetable shortenings, margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oil.

Trans fat can increase the shelf life of certain foods by guaranteeing lasting flavor, but scientific studies have found that it is also the most harmful contributor to heart disease through its tendency to raise levels of bad cholesterol and lower the good, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s Web site.

It is best to consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids and less than 300 milligrams per day of cholesterol, and keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible, according to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Nutra-Clear NT ™, the oil chosen for the switch, contains zero grams of trans fat per serving while still keeping a low saturated fat level per serving, so it keeps in compliance with federal health guidelines.

Kevin Tlougan, marketing manager for Chartwells, said the company’s goal is to consistently keep the customer’s health and well-being in mind.

“We want to be as healthy as we can possibly be for the customer, but at the same time, change should be made only if not sacrificing quality,” Tlougan said.

And it seems they have done just that. The switch was made in time for the opening of the University Center and has been in place in all the residence hall dining areas and University Center retail locations since.

Like most students interviewed, Ashley Schorn hasn’t noticed a difference in flavor.

“I think the food at the new University Center is great!” Schorn said. “It tastes wonderful and if they changed something to fat-free, you can’t even tell. The original taste is still there.”

Instead, students have commented on an increased variety of healthier dining choices.

Amanda Grey said she has eaten in the University Center only a few times, but has noticed a significant difference in dining options.

“They have more selection and better choices of what you can eat,” Grey said.

Tlougan said the Balanced Choices program Chartwells offers through on-campus dining helps students make healthy nutritional decisions without compromising choice. The focus changes through a variety of categories such as vegan, vegetarian, low-carb, organic and non-dairy. For example, the program is currently offering more fish for those students who observe Lent.

There are even plates in some areas that show portions to help teach students that while nutritional value is important, portion control is part of a healthy diet as well.

Student Taryn Hartenstein said she wouldn’t have noticed the change in oil since she takes advantage of healthier choices on a fairly regular basis.

“I don’t really know [if there’s a difference],” Hartenstein said. “I have usually just eaten a salad.”

Helping students learn to make healthier choices is the ultimate goal, Tlougan said.

“We have a dedication to health — we want to provide the most healthful dining options possible,” Tlougan said. “Basically, we try to teach the opposite of the freshman 20, 15 or whatever it may be.”