food · nutrition

Numb to process!

Restaurant meal prep; what’s really on my food?

Having someone else prepare a meal is a luxury; whether it be bellying up to dear ole’ mom’s delectable chicken parmesan, a diner cook’s simple rendition of home fries and eggs, or a chef’s gourmet take on steak tips; there’s no prep, no cleanup, no worries. We sit back, enjoy being waited on and don’t ask questions; but is it really that simple?

Although you may not want to challenge your mom on food prep, you can and should ask what your favorite restaurant is using on the grill to prepare your eggs or steak tips. Why? . . .  because some of the oils they’re using could be detrimental to your health.

Resist the urge to be ‘numb.’

After a recent visit to one of my favorite breakfast spots I started to question what was used on the griddle to cook my eggs; they were extremely oily and buttery, and aside from not appreciating the overwhelming taste of butter, I thought, “If I’m ordering my toast without butter I sure as heck don’t want gobs of it on my eggs.”FullSizeRender (63)

So, right then and there I asked the waitress what was used on the griddle. She casually quipped about a butter/oil substance, asking me if I had an allergy. She didn’t notice, but my antennae immediately went up. A later call to that same restaurant confirmed that they use an oil liquid butter alternative that is trans-fat free. What does that mean?

If you do a search on products available to restaurants for purchase you will undoubtedly come across an oil liquid butter alternative. These products are cheaper and more shelf stable, making them attractive to restaurants. Here’s one pitch from a food supplier:

Phase (Oil Liquid Butter Alternative) is formulated for high heat stability and imparts a rich, buttery flavor in a variety of cooking applications. Phase contains no cholesterol and is low in saturated fat. It is shelf-stable, requires no refrigeration and has a 20 percentage greater yield than butter or margarine.” (1)

phase oil
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Ingredients in Phase:


That’s what was on my eggs! I had no idea; what else don’t I know? It really got me thinking – what do the names in this ingredient list mean and should I be concerned, what does the FDA say about this product and others like it when it comes to trans-fats, additives, and preservatives, and what are the rules for restaurants when it comes to telling all?

While the FDA has cracked down on fast food chains and franchise restaurant establishments to publish ingredient lists and encourage a cut back on trans-fats, your favorite restaurant down the road is not required to play by the same rules. Unless the retail food establishment is part of a chain with 20 or more locations, nutrition labeling does not apply. Translation – you’re eating in the dark.

“While food companies are required to list trans-fats on their labels and are working to find healthier substitutions, the restaurant industry has not received the pressure to change. Many restaurants prefer to fry their foods using partially hydrogenated oils, resulting in a high trans-fat content in the food.” (2)

Back to Phase – let’s look at the ingredient list:

Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil (PHO): is oil in which the essential fatty acids have been converted to a different form chemically. They start as polyunsaturated fats and go through the process of hydrogenation (a chemical process where hydrogen molecules are added to a liquid oil to make it more shelf stable) and become solid unhealthy trans-fats. They also interfere with the body’s ability to ingest and utilize the good fats! Basically this oil is cheaper and lasts longer.

Salt: a white crystalline substance that is used for seasoning or preserving food.

Soy Lecithin: is a mixture of phospholipids (fatty compounds) derived from the processing of soybeans. It naturally occurs in the body, providing protection for cells by helping them to stay strong and retain shape. There are numerous health benefits to lecithin such as supporting liver health, fighting cholesterol, and helping with weight loss because it is rich in choline (one of the B-complex vitamins). (3) It is used to keep certain ingredients from separating out.

Natural and Artificial flavors: Additives “made in a laboratory by a trained professional, a “flavorist”, who blends appropriate chemicals together in the right proportions. The flavorist uses natural chemicals to make natural flavorings and “synthetic” chemicals to make artificial flavorings.”(4) Enhances food flavor.

Beta Carotene: is one of a group of red, orange, and yellow pigments called carotenoids. It is converted to vitamin A, an essential nutrient, and has antioxidant activity which promotes cell health. Enhances color.

TBHQ: Tertiary butylhydroquinone is a synthetic chemical with anti-oxidant properties. “It is in fact a chemical preservative which is a form of butane. It is used in foodstuffs to delay the onset of rancidness and greatly extends the storage life of foods. Consuming high doses (between 1 and 4 grams) of TBHQ can cause nausea, delirium, collapse, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and vomiting. There are also suggestions that it may lead to hyperactivity in children as well as asthma, rhinitis and dermatitis. It may also further aggravate ADHD symptoms and cause restlessness.” (5) It is a preservative.

Citric Acid: “. . .  is a naturally occurring acid in both our bodies and many fruits and vegetables. It is also added to various foods as a preservative and taste enhancer – specifically the sour taste. The only negative effect of citric acid is it can erode your tooth enamel over time.” (6) It is a preservative and taste enhancer.

Dimethylpolysiloxane: is a type of silicone with anti-foaming properties.  “As a food additive, it is used as an anti-foaming and anti-caking agent. It is used by McDonalds in its Chicken Nuggets. It is also used in soft drinks, skimmed milk, soups and syrups. (7)

One chef’s take on Phase:

“. . . oils used in butter substitutes like Phase are extracted with hexane, which is a petroleum-based solvent. Not only does this process produce an oil that is less healthy than an oil which is extracted by an expeller press, it may also leave trace amount of contamination. “I don’t know what their official stance on residuals is, but you’re using a chemical to extract an oil.” (Chef Marcus Guiliano, owner of Aroma Thyme Bistro and author of the blog Chefs on a Mission) (8)

Research on Dimethylpolysiloxane and TBHQ.

Popular snack food with TBHQ

According to, “the FDA allows amounts of up to 0.02% of the total oils in food to be TBHQ. This may not sound like a lot, but it does tend to make one wonder why there needs to be a limit on the amount if it is apparently a ‘harmless additive.’ Mind you, anything which derives its origins from butane could hardly be classified as safe, no matter how small the dose.” (9) Unsettling!

The FDA’s process for policing food additives is another story. “Once approved by the FDA, food additives are considered fit for human consumption—but they may not be entirely safe. Some food and color additives have induced allergic reactions, while others have been linked to cancer, asthma, and birth defects. The FDA requires that all ingredients be listed on a food’s label, but additives are often listed without specificity, as “spices” or “flavorings,” making it impossible for consumers to determine what, exactly, they are eating.” (Please enlighten yourself on the FDA and food additives; link below.)

Let’s talk trans-fats.

Just because a product states zero trans-fats that doesn’t make it so!

Trans-fats raise LDL, lower HDL and put you at risk for heart disease and increased blood clotting and inflammation. Partially hydrogenated oils are full of trans-fats. So how can products that are made with PHO say zero trans-fats?

“Currently, the FDA’s label regulations state that when one serving of a product contains less than 0.5 grams of any nutrient (including trans-fat), then the amount is considered nutritionally insignificant and can be expressed as “0 grams” on the Nutrition Facts label. While it may not seem like a lot, when you consume more than one serving in a sitting, or more than one serving of that food over time, it can really add up.”(10)

“If you normally consume about 2,000 calories each day, you shouldn’t consume more than 20 calories in trans-fat, or just a little more than 2 g of trans-fat in a day.”(11) The truth is, a few store bought cookies could send you over the top.

Let’s apply that information to our favorite restaurants. If we look at the nutrition label of Phase, for example, it shows zero saturated fats and zero trans-fats for one serving which equals 14g. How much is that? – 14g equals about one tablespoon, which according to FDA requirements means that if 2 tablespoons of that product are used, trans-fats are officially present.  Can you picture the cook or chef preparing your meal measuring by tablespoon the amount of oil he/she is going to use on your meat or eggs to make sure you only get one serving? NOT!

Breaking News; the FDA has finally seen the light!

Partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) is demonized for good reason, which is why the FDA is trying to keep them out of our diets. It appears that they have decided, as of 2013, that PHO’s that are not naturally occurring in our food (like in meat and dairy products) are not GRAS- ‘generally regarded as safe’, for use in our food.

“Trans-fats have appeared as an ingredient on nutrition labels since 2006. Since that time, the amount Americans eat has gone down from 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to about 1 gram a day in 2012, the FDA says.” (12)

FullSizeRender (61)It’s all good news, but we still seem to be in a wait and see mode when it comes to companies complying with the FDA by removing the PHO’s.

“The FDA is providing a three-year compliance period. This will allow industry to gradually phase out the remaining uses over a three-year period, or seek food additive approval for those uses.” (13)  It is now 2016, and I can still find processed food with PHO’s; maybe those products met FDA requirements through the petitioning process.

Should we really worry about ‘chemicals’ in our food?

“For the sake of neutrality, it is important to point out that no official studies have proven that dimethylpolysiloxane is a health risk to humans.  According to CFR Title 21, de-foaming agents may be safely added to food products in the United States.  The FDA authorizes that ten parts per million of dimethylpolysiloxane and other similar silicone derivatives, can be added to foods that are labeled as “ready-for-consumption”. (14)

“The good news is it’s (TBHQ) not suspected to be a persistent toxin, meaning your body is probably able to eliminate it so it doesn’t bio-accumulate.” (15)

Taking those two quotes into consideration, let’s consider this quote as well . . .

“It is also important to note that while the FDA lists some additives that are approved for food use, many more additives are never approved by the FDA. There is actually very little oversight for many of the additives and other ingredients in our food supply. The term GRAS refers to “generally regarded as safe,” the moniker the FDA uses to regulate food additives, dyes, and preservatives. But according to Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, many additives in our food supply are never even tested. That’s because the GRAS designation is a voluntary process—instead of being required to register food additives, companies can notify the FDA about their product, but only if they so choose.”(16)

The mindset that there are safe quantities of chemicals in preservatives and additives etc. that we can ingest doesn’t sit well with me. I have learned that these chemicals which bring stability to processed foods, including oil liquid butter alternatives, effect nutrient absorption and cause our stomachs to churn and churn and churn until it can get rid of that food.  Ramen noodles look that way for a reason.

Am I making too much of this?

Processed foods have become a way of life and we all get caught up in going with the flow, but sometimes it’s good to step back, do a little research and care about what you send down your gullet. No matter what the FDA does with PHO’s, which would only effect trans-fat, there are a host of chemicals still invading processed food, and they’re hiding behind complicated long names of preservatives, additives, and food enhancers that we casually brush off.

Bottom line.

I try to eat right, to make healthy choices, but even I have become lax; ‘numb to process’. There is hope though.  While I know I can definitely scrutinize what I buy in a store, I should also feel empowered at a restaurant to ask questions. I shouldn’t be embarrassed or feel that I am being a ‘pain in the you know what’ when I ask how my food is being prepared, and if I don’t want to eat chemicals, I don’t have to.

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When you’re in a restaurant ask what they use and if you’re concerned, ask if they will accommodate you with a healthier option like olive oil or dare I say, ‘real’ butter. (check links below for the skinny on cooking oil choices – you may be surprised).


Or, choose a different menu option like eating poached eggs or egg whites which are cooked in water and vinegar, or do what I did that last time I went to breakfast and opt for the fruit bowl sprinkled with wheat germ, walnuts and low-fat yogurt. It was a great change; my taste buds and my belly thanked me for it!

Interesting reads:

*FDA and food additive policies –

*What you need to know about how cooking oils are produced -



*What McDonalds has to say –

Photo credits:

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