How would Chico handle the new diet trend if it becomes a state law?
Lori Powers has owned the Upper Crust Bakery in downtown Chico for 16 years. She’s seen food fads and ingredient alerts come and go. If she were to react to each one, she might as well print her recipes on boomerangs.
Remember the low-carb craze a few years back? Or the push for Splenda to replace Nutrasweet, itself a replacement for saccharin, as a substitute for sugar? Or the trumpeting of margarine as heart-healthier than butter?
Low-carb and sugar-free foods aren’t atop the “it” list these days. The focus has switched to trans fat—the saturated fat that comes from the hydrogenation of oil and … margarine.
Research shows trans fats contribute to America’s No. 1 killer: heart disease. Some fast-food chains and food manufacturers have begun phasing them out. Tiburon, Calif., and New York City banned them—and the state of California may follow suit. Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City) recently introduced Assembly Bill 93, which would prohibit eateries and schools from using trans fats in food preparation.
Reducing the amount of heart-clogging globules obviously makes good dietary sense. On that, most everyone—from dieticians to restaurateurs—agrees. Whether we need laws to force good choices is another matter.
“I think the awareness is good,” Powers said last week, sitting at a table in Upper Crust’s bustling dining room. “I’m not sure the law-passing aspect is. I question that.”
Trans fat (short for trans fatty acid) forms when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats such as shortening and margarine. This process—known as hydrogenation, because hydrogen atoms infuse the oil—helps extend the shelf life and flavor stability of products.
Trans fat raises “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lowers “good” cholesterol (HDL). That is the link between trans fat and heart disease.
“Always check the ingredient list,” advised Heather Matlock, a clinical dietitian at Enloe Medical Center.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends keeping trans fat consumption “as low as possible” in its 2005 dietary guidelines. In 2006, the American Heart Association prescribed a limit of 2 to 2.5 grams per day.
How low is that number? Consider that a chicken pot pie from KFC has 14 grams of trans fats, and you’ll get an idea.
KFC, however, is one of the fast food companies that are changing their ways. It, Taco Bell and Wendy’s have pledged to eliminate the use of trans fats. Other chains include Starbucks, Denny’s and Panera Bread.
“Large fast-food companies are being encouraged and/or pressured by public and government pressure to make foods healthier in a nation where obesity has become an epidemic,” said Andrea May-Murphey, clinical dietician at Oroville Hospital. “These changes will not decrease large portion sizes and foods high in saturated fats found in most fast-food menus.”
Stephen Joseph, founder and president of BanTransFat.com, spearheaded Project Tiburon, which in 2004 made that Northern California city the first in the nation to ban trans fat. An attorney, he also sued Kraft to get trans fat removed from Oreo cookies and sued McDonald’s over the content of its oil.
His motivation is personal. Joseph’s stepfather died of a heart attack in 2001. After reading a newspaper article about trans fat’s deadly effects, he jumped into action.
“You could be the food police or the food criminal,” Joseph said, his British accent punctuating his passion. “I absolutely hope it sets a precedent. If we are putting bad things in food, we should take the proper steps to eliminate the bad stuff in foods. It’s a basic step to protect the health of our citizens.”
Garcia also has familial inspiration. She’s 44, just six years shy of when her mother suffered her first heart attack. “She’s living now, but dying of heart disease,” Garcia said in a phone interview from her office in Sacramento. “I watched my two kids plump up during high school” as a result of unhealthful eating at lunch and snack time at school.
She introduced the bill banning trans fat because “Californians are some of the fattest and unhealthiest people on the planet.”
Is food policing the answer?
Joseph clearly thinks so—"It’s clearly time for Chico to go trans-fat-free,” he said, echoing the feeling he has for Tiburon and other cities.
Chico could do so “overnight,” he continued. “It’s simply switching the oils. There are no negatives associated with banning trans fats.
“It does cost more—in a 200-person restaurant, maybe $10, $15 a year. If you can’t take that extra cost, you probably aren’t a succeeding restaurant.”
Jot Condie, CEO of the California Restaurants Association, questions the merit of—and motivation behind—the move to ban trans fat. He is the first to admit margarine and solid fats are not healthful, but “consumers are smart enough to make their own decision, and we [CRA] are fundamentally against government intervention.
“There are so many things that need to be fixed in California right now that if they [legislators] think this is an issue, they ought to refocus,” Condie added. It is not hard to replace oils; the more customers who ask for trans-fat-free foods, the more restaurants will have to serve them.
“In some instances, such as bakeries, there are recipes that necessitate solid margarine. So are there alternatives? Yes. But can you completely get rid of them? No.”
Perhaps not everywhere, but food preparers in Chico say they wouldn’t have much of a problem responding to a ban.
Brenda Padilla, director of food services for the Chico Unified School District, said trans fats have “been a topic of conversation for a number of years. From my perspective, manufacturers began a year ago taking out trans fats.”
Baked goods represent the top source of trans fats in Americans’ diets (see chart, this page). CUSD does its own baking—trans-fat-free.
“It’s going to effect us, but in a positive way,” she said. “We’ll have more products available to us.” She’ll see exactly what is out there this weekend (Jan. 19-20), when she goes to Santa Clara for the annual gathering of the California School Nutrition Association. The show will include a session on trans fat, she said, and “I’ll be looking at those vendors that are ahead of the ball.”
Chico State is in a similar position. Yves Latouche, a director of Associated Students Food Service, said the campus began using rice oil a year ago and, like CUSD, bakes in-house. Bagels and donuts come from outside vendors; in the event of a trans-fat ban, AS Food Service might have to switch providers.
“We’re already working toward sustainability and good health,” he said, “so we’re ahead of that.”
Back at Upper Crust, with the lunch crowd starting to thin, Powers considered how a trans-fat ban would affect her business. The bakery is known for rich cakes, savory pies, brownies, cookies and breads, as well as soups and salads.
Pie crusts have shortening; she may have to consider a base with butter. Beyond that, she was hard-pressed to find a recipe she’d have to alter.
“We really don’t rely on prepared products like you do see in the baking industry,” she said. “You do see a lot of poor-quality products. People can run a bakery on all-prepared ingredients.”
Not so much in Chico, though—"I find in general people like to know what’s in their food. We’ve always been pretty careful to keep wrong ingredients from coming in the doors.”
If Garcia’s bill becomes law, Powers agrees that even the eateries that use pre-made doughs and other items should have little difficulty transitioning. “It would seem the infrastructure in place would support it,” she said, meaning the food-service companies that have ample experience with new trends.
Still, the idea of a ban doesn’t sit right with her. “We all have the opportunity to make good choices or bad choices,” she said, and patrons spur healthy changes without policing or legislation.
“There was a time when you never saw soy milk offered as an alternative in the coffee business,” Powers noted. “Now there isn’t a coffee purveyor who wouldn’t carry it.”
Here are the major sources of trans fats for American adults:
40% baked goods (cakes, cookies, crackers, pies, bread)
21% animal products
8% fried potatoes
5% potato chips, corn chips, popcorn
4% household shortening
3% salad dressing
1% breakfast cereal
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration