For many, trans fats are unpalatable

Health experts applaud New York's proposal to ban them from restaurants, but chefs urge caution

September 28, 2006|By Joe Burris and Stephanie Shapiro | Joe Burris and Stephanie Shapiro,sun reporters

In New York City, the eating-out capital of the country, trans fats may soon all but disappear from restaurant food. Similar restrictions are on the table in Chicago. Will Baltimore, the city that enjoys funnel cakes, Reuben sandwiches and seasoned fries, follow suit?

"I think all restaurants need to take a look," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner. "There's nothing stopping the transition starting in Baltimore now from less-healthy foods to healthy foods, using alternatives to trans fats.

"I think it's an issue people should take seriously," he said. "An estimated 30,000 people die a year from heart disease related to trans fats." If trans fats were eliminated from restaurant food, a large percentage of coronary diseases could be prevented, he said.

Some in the local food industry say they've been responding to a more health-conscious public all along, that regulatory measures aren't necessary.

"I don't think someone else should decide for you, but it's a good idea to watch what people are putting in their cooking," said Rodney Henry of Dangerously Delicious Pies in Federal Hill.

He said nothing artificial goes into his desserts.

"Most of the places I deal with and my friends who own restaurants don't have trans fats. They don't deal with it," he said. "People are getting wise. Who wants it, the stuff that kills you?"

Trans fats are derived from oils injected with hydrogen to increase shelf life and add flavor. You find them in some snack foods, fast foods, fried foods and baked goods, and they have been linked to heart disease. Baltimore International College chef Rich Stuthmann says trans fats are known in the food-service industry as "the new cholesterol."

Yet Stuthmann says that while limiting trans fats is important, the food-service industry can respond to the public's desire to limit them without government interference.

"We have to take an active role, but generally we're driven by the public on issues such as this," added Stuthmann.

"It's always been from a safety and sanitation standpoint, that we are to serve wholesome food. But at what point do they require us to be the police of what and how a customer should eat?"

Most everyone agrees that trans-fat talk is dominating the food industry - which for some seems odd since its dangers have been duly noted for some time.

"Trans fats are not brand new; maybe we've worn out [warnings] about cholesterol and saturated fat," said nutritionist and BIC professor Charles Colison, who says that trans fats reduce the body's good cholesterol while raising bad cholesterol.

He said that the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association recommend limiting our daily trans fat intake to 1 percent of our caloric intake. It's now more like 3 percent.

"The more processed food you eat, the more trans fat you're going to have," he said.

In New York, the board of health aims to prohibit restaurants from including more than half a gram of trans fats in a serving of their food. Public hearings about the proposed amendment will take place before the board issues a final decision by the end of the year. An attempt to have restaurants voluntarily comply failed.

Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventative Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, applauds the New York City board of health's efforts.

He likened the anti-trans-fat effort to similar measures to get the public to cut down on salt intake.

"Obviously, if you go to restaurants, you don't know what you're getting," said Miller. "What's extremely important from a public health perspective, based on some epidemiological studies, is that individuals who consume the most amounts of trans fats will have 20 to 40 percent increased likelihood of developing heart disease.

"Whether it's the health department or a segment of the FDA, some regulatory agency needs to get involved," Miller said.

If you're a fine-dining enthusiast, you probably need not worry about trans fats.

That's why Francois Dionot, founder of L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, says trans fats aren't even discussed at his culinary school, which cooks with butter and natural oils.

"No chef working in a fine-dining restaurant would use any of those trans fats," said Dionot. "It's mostly involved in the preparation of inexpensive, fast food, which unfortunately is what the majority of most people eat."

Fried food doesn't have to mean unhealthful food, says Tony Foreman, who with his wife, Cindy Wolf, owns Petit Louis in Roland Park, Charleston in the Inner Harbor and Pazo near Fells Point.

They're known for their french fries at Petit Louis and fried calamari at Pazo - both are cooked with peanut oil. They don't use any trans fats.

"I think if you're in the business, you should be conscientiously serving the best product you can, regardless of price. The best product would be the healthiest product," Foreman said.

"The problem is not just the consumers and not the city council's problem. It's all of our problem, and it's the entire food industry's growth and distribution problem."

Tim Zagat of Zagat Survey restaurant guides echoed those sentiments.

Yet he says he doubts that restaurants throughout the nation that use trans fats would put consumers' best interests over their own.

He compares the potential regulation of trans fats to laws that prohibited smoking, which many restaurants fought before ultimately going along.

"There is no question that trans fats are in the crosshairs of anybody in the health field," Zagat said. "Restaurants would be better off figuring out how to try to replace them than fighting a losing battle."

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