Most supermarkets greet shoppers with abundant heaps of fresh fruits and veggies, the healthiest goods in the store. Step out of the produce section, though, and things get more complicated.
Trans fats, the demon food du jour, seem to lurk everywhere — in the dairy cooler, along the snack aisles, at the bakery.
Head out the door to a restaurant or fast-food joint, and you’ll find trans fats again, used to deep-fry such treats as French fries and doughnuts.
But while trans fats seem ubiquitous, they’re also under siege. In the past year or so, cities and corporations ranging from New York City to McDonald’s have belittled or outright banned trans fats for their poor health grade.
Generations of consumers have blithely munched trans fats in baked and fried foods in blissful ignorance, in part because food manufacturers weren’t required to indicate trans fats on product labels until 2006.
Now trans fats seem to be on their way out of the food supply — just as we’re becoming aware that we’ve been eating them.
Dairy products and certain meats contain small amounts of natural trans fats, but the vast majority of the trans fats in the American diet are artificial. These scientific wonders form when vegetable oil is chemically stabilized and solidified by adding hydrogen.
Known as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, these chemical products were first introduced to consumers in 1911, when the vegetable shortening Crisco came on the market. Today, the oils are common in processed and fried foods, ranging from crackers and cookies to corn dogs and pie crust.
Manufacturers of packaged snacks, pre-made foods, and baked goods prefer chemically hydrogenated oils because they’re cheap, and they lengthen shelf life. Restaurateurs like the affordability of these oils, too, and the fact that they can be used repeatedly for deep-frying without going rancid.
Trans fats wound up in the dietary doghouse in 1990, however, when they were found not only to raise blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (the so-called “bad” cholesterol), but to simultaneously lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (the “good” cholesterol). The result is an increased risk of coronary heart disease in people who eat a lot of them.
In fact, a notable study from the Harvard School of Public Health published last April blamed trans fats for more than 72,000 heart attacks and deaths related to coronary heart disease each year in the United States. Trans fats have also been linked to an elevated risk of diabetes.
The stuff just isn’t good for you.
Since many trans fats are found in fried food, anti-trans-fats crusaders have targeted restaurants. In 2004, the 18 restaurants of Tiburon, California, voluntarily went trans-fat-free. This past winter, New York City and Philadelphia passed bans on trans fats in restaurants, and now officials in a number of other jurisdictions are considering doing the same. Others may instead require restaurants that use trans fats to alert consumers, or bar trans fats from public-school cafeterias.
Many major chains, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, and Starbucks, have pledged to drastically reduce or eliminate partially hydrogenated oils from their menus nationwide. And independent restaurants across the country are voluntarily dumping the fats, too. While many New York restaurateurs grumble about the expense of switching oils and reformulating their recipes, the anti-fat crusade is clearly rising to the top.
Even cooking schools are beginning to shun trans fats. The Culinary Institute of America, with campuses in Hyde Park, New York, and St. Helena, California, removed partially hydrogenated oils from its hands-on training curriculum in July 2005. And other schools are doing so, too.
For flavor’s sake, professional bakers and chefs aren’t shedding any tears about the passing of artificial trans fats. “There is zero flavor coming out of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils,” says Thomas Vaccaro, the associate dean for curriculum and instruction in the baking and pastry arts department of the Culinary Institute of America. “It leaves a greasy aftertaste.” In baked goods, he adds, trans fats don’t melt in your mouth like butter does, because their melting point is higher.
Take a Danish, for example. To bake a flavorful Danish using partially hydrogenated oils, commercial bakers add almond, lemon, or orange extracts, vanillas, or extra zip in the raspberry filling to fill the flavor hole left when butter is omitted. “The next step was to pour fondant — that melted icing — all over it to get that crunch. But once you get inside, there’s no flavor,” says Vaccaro. “If you used all butter, you wouldn’t need all that extra flavor.”
The bottom line for bakers? “If you’re looking for better flavor, butter is the one. And the better the butter, the better the flavor,” Vaccaro says.
There are definite textural differences that can compensate for partially hydrogenated oils’ lack of flavor. Cookies made with partially hydrogenated oils are softer and fluffier than those made with butter, which imparts a crispy texture. Piecrusts are lighter and flakier.
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