Fat City

The county may ban trans fats. Nobody, including cooks, knows what the heck they are.

Inside the Krispy Kreme store on NE 167th Street, hundreds of donuts chug along conveyor belts, waiting to be filled, glazed, and eaten. A few dozen finished ones fill several metal racks, sprinkled with sparkly sugars and lacquered with thick chocolate.

During a ten-minute interval at midday last Wednesday, three people walked in and bought approximately 120 of them. One of the buyers, a 74-year-old man named Vincent, smiled as he lugged away three boxes, each as big as a European traveler's suitcase.

He said he was buying them for the employees of the cancer ward of Mount Sinai Hospital. "They're not for me," he asserted.

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As far as some nutritionists are concerned, Vincent might as well have brought a gun inside the hospital and started shooting. Trans fat, created when plant oils are mixed with hydrogen, is a key ingredient in the doughnuts. It makes them flaky, tasty, and shelf-stable.

It can also be deadly. "Eating it is like ingesting plastic," says Ronni Litz Julien, an Aventura nutritionist who advocates a countywide ban on the substance. "The body's cells don't know what to do with it."

In the last few weeks, local, state, and national leaders have gone crazy over trans fat. Last Tuesday the Miami-Dade County Commission began considering a ban in schools, prisons and restaurants — similar to what New York City did last year. Two Democratic Broward state representatives, Joseph Gibbons and Ari Porth, proposed a bill to require restaurants to disclose trans fats on the menu. Just last week Miami-based Burger King announced it would phase them out by the end of 2008 and Crisco — which developed the first trans fat shortening in 1911 — announced it had developed a baking aid without the manmade substance.

So in Miami, land of the pastelito and Jamaican patty, New Times decided to survey people's knowledge about the perils of trans fat. The results weren't encouraging.

Inside Café Calle 8 near SW 19th Avenue in Little Havana, owner Carlos Matias ate a hearty plate of rice, beans, yucca, and French fries at the small counter. As the short, Cuban-American store owner chatted with his wife in Spanish, the song Takin' Care of Business rocked in English on the radio. Asked whether he uses trans fat in his cooking, Matias answered with a chuckle: "Trans fats. Is that the new Metrorail?"

He got up from his counter stool and went into the back room. "Nope, I use vegetable oil," he called out. "A hundred percent vegetable oil." He sat back down in front of his plate of food.

A few blocks away at the soon-to-open El Rey de las Fritas on Calle Ocho, three employees didn't know what trans fat was. A plump thirtyish woman who declined to give her name said they plan to spread Cuban bread with margarine like many other places in the neighborhood. Almost all margarine — including name brands such as Land O' Lakes — contains trans fat. None was on hand, though.

Across the street at Karmen Bakery, folks lined up to buy golden croquettes, coconut bread, caramel éclairs, and, of course, guava pastries. The bakery's pastelitos are out-of-this world delicious, with layers of flaky, tanned phyllo sheets enveloping the pink guava. And they go for 55 cents.

The owner, a thin guy behind the counter who declined to give his name, claimed he didn't know what kind of oil he uses. Nor did he know about trans fat. Of course, he wouldn't disclose the type of oil he uses. "I don't have time right now," he said in Spanish.

Over in Little Haiti on NE Second Avenue and NE 62nd Street, kompa music blared in the parking lot, while CNN International droned on a TV inside. The restaurant's various delicacies were painted in a colorful mural on the ceiling: crab, shrimp, fish. About half the menu includes fried food, but the broad-shouldered cook (also anonymous — a trend?) couldn't name the oil, nor would he offer a bottle for examination. Like the others, he had no idea about trans fat.

Only at Kim's Cream, a churro joint in Little Havana on Calle Ocho near SW 11th Avenue, had the owner heard about the nasty fats. José Ortega doesn't use them in his doughnuts, but was unsure about whether they are in his ice cream. (Usually ice cream and other dairy products contain a trace of the stuff.) "Trans fat is dangerous," Ortega said.

Customers are equally clueless, though when asked about the potential prohibition, donut eaters and pastelito munchers agreed that it's an excellent idea — as long as it doesn't interfere with the taste of their favorite foods.

"I don't know what it is, but if it's a bad thing, I guess they should ban it," said Rodney, a big guy in a baggy black T-shirt who was buying two dozen donuts at the Krispy Kreme in North Miami Beach for his aunt. Her favorite flavor, Rodney says, is the original glazed Krispy Kreme (four grams of trans fat).

Neither Rodney nor 34-year-old Alain Decade seemed alarmed about the dangers of trans fat. "I eat a Krispy Kreme about once a month, a plain one," Decade said, adding that he supports ending the use of trans fat. "I think they should ban tobacco, too, even though I smoke," he said.

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