The TransFat Fight

“Me personally, I can tell the difference,” chef-owner Chris Scarduzio said. “Other people can’t.”

Good thing.

Philadelphia yesterday became the first city to pass legislation banning the use of trans fats – man-made artery cloggers linked to bad cholesterol and heart disease – in most dishes served by restaurants, cafeterias, and other food establishments.

If Mayor Street signs the bill, as expected, the effect is likely to be minimal for many consumers, since much-maligned trans fats were already on their way out at countless commercial kitchens, including those of KFC, Taco Bell, and other national chains.

As of Sept. 1, eateries in Philadelphia will be forbidden to fry foods in trans fats or serve trans-fat-based spreads. By Sept. 1, 2008, trans fat will be banned as an ingredient in food prepared in commercial kitchens. The ban will not apply to prepackaged foods – such as Tastykake Krimpets – sold in the city.

Councilman Juan Ramos, who sponsored the unanimously approved bill, said he believed it would have a quantifiable health impact.

“I expect as Philadelphia’s food-service establishments replace artificial trans fat with currently available heart-healthy alternatives, the result could be as much as a 6 percent reduction in coronary heart disease events in our community,” Ramos said.

New York City’s Board of Health outlawed trans fats in December. More than a dozen states, including New Jersey, are considering bans or restrictions.

Gov. Rendell, long known for his fondness for high-fat foods, has said he was uncertain about whether he would support a statewide ban.

“I’d want to know that the foods would taste the same,” he said.

Eileen Talanian, a Philadelphia-area cookbook author and food consultant, said baked goods made with butter instead of trans fat would taste better.

“The taste will be more buttery, and it won’t leave a film in your mouth like shortening,” said Talanian, who wrote Chewy Cookies: America’s Comfort Food . “In terms of flavor and texture, it would be a plus.”

Trans fat occurs in oils that have been hydrogenated – combined with hydrogen – such as shortening, margarine, and commercial vegetable oils used by restaurants for cooking, frying and baking. Such products are less expensive and extend the shelf life of baked goods, but they raise the level of LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol) in the bloodstream, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

Shortening, for those wedded to it, is now available without trans fat, Talanian said. And many healthier oils on the market for baking and frying will not affect taste, she added.

Dunkin’ Donuts has removed trans fats from muffins and some other items, and is investigating alternative oils.

“We will continue to work to meet the deadline set by the Philadelphia City Council,” the company said in a statement.

The city Health Department’s 30 restaurant inspectors will enforce the ban, which will affect an estimated 8,000 establishments, from lunch trucks to company cafeterias. Though the bill carries no penalties, Ramos said fines could be added if necessary.

Philip Pinkney, director of culinary arts at the Restaurant School and a fellow of the American Academy of Chefs, dismissed the legislation as “feel-good politics.”

“They can say they’ve done something… but they’re not addressing the issue of obesity,” he said. “We have to change our culture and the way we eat.”

That means getting people to consume less and exercise more, Pinkney said, not just forcing restaurants to switch oil.

“A fat is a fat is a fat,” he said. “It’s more education than legislation.”

The bill defines food as trans-fat-free if it contains less than half a gram of trans fat per serving. Inspectors will check labels to determine whether restaurants are complying, Jeff Moran of the Health Department said.

At Scarduzio’s Brasserie, they would find peanut oil instead of the partially hydrogenated oil he used to use. It costs about $15,000 more a year, Scarduzio estimated, but is worth it because consumers want it.

“It’s a healthy choice,” he said.

Tony Luke Jr., of cheesesteak fame, said his five shops had stopped using partially hydrogenated oil for french fries more than a year ago.

“I started to read up on trans fat, how the body can’t get rid of it, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to eat that,’ ” he said. “Our father taught us, ‘We don’t serve anything we don’t want to eat ourselves.’ ”

Now the potatoes sizzle in canola oil, as the steaks always have.

Cary Borish, a partner in the local Marathon Grill restaurant group, said his casual cafés hadn’t used trans fats in years, if ever.

“The more natural products are, the better they taste,” he said. “It’s a positive thing.”

Angie Makris, an assistant professor at the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University, answers your questions about trans fats.

Ban gives Phila. a healthy lead in trans-fat fight
This article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 9, 2007.
By Patrick Kerkstra and Julie Stoiber


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