Trans Fats: New York Bans It, Florida Lets Anybody Use It
Innocent cupcake, or trans fat ridden confection?
Shoppers entering the Fresh Market in Coconut Grove are greeted with vibrant flowers, elegant wooden fixtures and mellow classical music.
The bakery section features organized stacks of sugar cookies, fruity pies and loaf cakes, all placed in a very sweet, delicious way.
But, if you take a closer look at the list of ingredients on each label, this ethereal spell might easily break.
The mini vanilla cupcakes are prepared with partially hydrogenated soybean oil. The larger cupcakes feature the same ingredient, along with the iced layered cakes.
Artificial trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) and saturated fats are the most commonly used fats by bakers. Because of many health concerns though, trans fats have been largely eliminated in some places. The reasoning behind this decline can be summarized by one of Michael Pollan's Food Rules: it's better to pay the grocer, not the doctor.
In other words, trans fats may have benefits for retailers, but the health consequences outweigh them.
Artificial trans fats are created when oil is pumped with hydrogen. The result is a partially hydrogenated oil that is solid at room temperature. These fats increase "bad" cholesterol (LDL) and decrease "good" cholesterol (HDL).
The consumption of artificial trans fats can significantly increase risks of heart disease, and these risks are much more substantial than those associated with saturated fats, like palm or coconut oil (there's also the category of natural trans fats out there, although the health benefits, or consequences, of those are still being researched).
But all this bad news about trans fats isn't new, and the concerns over them have already been dealt with in many cities and states. In New York City, artificial trans fats have been illegal since 2007. No restaurants, whether cheap take-outs or ritzy joints, can prepare foods with artificial trans fats. California was the first state to ban their use completely, and others have begun following these examples.
The State of Florida, however, continues to allow retailers and bakeries to use hefty portions of the artery-clogging fat. A bill was submitted to the House of Representatives in January 2007 that would have banned trans fats in restaurants. But it died shortly thereafter. A few years later, in 2011, chapter 509.032 of Florida statutes preemptively assigned the regulation of "matters related to the nutritional content and marketing of foods" to the state, not to the city.
So, for the time being, trans fats continue to roam happily across the sunshine state, and cities are forbidden from issuing municipal regulations against them.
But, as a response to the trans fat outrage, major national brands have taken it upon themselves to make changes to their ingredients. In 2007, Crisco, the popular shortening brand, changed its formula to a lower trans fat mixture of highly saturated palm oil and vegetable oil. After 95 years of selling the same formula, Crisco now features less than half gram trans fats per serving (in the United States, nutrition labels can read zero grams trans fats if the product has less than half gram of the fat per serving).
Supermarkets, like Publix, have reacted by placing labels that distinguish trans fat-free products from the rest. Many in the bakery section now feature a lovely blue sticker, announcing that there are zero grams trans fat per serving.
Dwaine Stevens, a representative of Publix explains, "At Publix Bakery, we do not use any hydrogenated shortenings in any of our bread and roll items, with the exception of Authentic Cuban bread."
He adds: "We do offer some pies with a trans-fat-free crust."
But you can still spot plenty of sneaky trans fats in the walnut brownies, sugar cookies, and iced cupcakes. As Stevens mentions, Publix offers some pies with a trans fat-free crust. Others, like their award-winning Key lime pie, are indeed still prepared with some trans fats.
But The Fresh Market and Publix prefer partially hydrogenated fats for a couple of reasons. Although artificial trans fats do increase risks for heart disease, they also increase stability and shelf life in baked goods. Hedy Goldsmith, the executive pastry chef of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, explains, "Using shortening yields larger products that have a much longer shelf life. Shortening does not need refrigeration, a bonus for bakeries."
But there's also the issue of affordability. She continues, "I believe that certain bakeries use solid shortening because butter is so expensive". So, if you expect your affordable key lime pie to taste just as good on day two, three or four, then you better check the ingredient label closely.
The fat issues go beyond Miami supermarkets, though. A representative from the Fontainebleau Hotel confirmed that the pastry department there chooses not to use any shortenings in their baked goods.
But Hedy Goldsmith thinks that butter doesn't cut it every time. "As you can imagine, I am a butter snob and proud of it. However, there are very few times when I need to use shortening, because butter just doesn't work as well," she clarifies.
Especially for certain preparations, like pies. "I do use shortening in certain pie crusts and biscuits," she says. "Shortening yields a flakier lighter biscuit and pie crust."
There are certain shortenings that are better than others, and Goldsmith is always careful when it comes to picking ingredients. She doesn't just grab any old, trans fat-full shortening. "I look for the ones with no trans fats. I will always choose Spectrum Organics Solid shortening over Crisco," she stresses.
Of course, prices are much higher at restaurants than grocery stores for baked goods. But, I would rather pay a few extra bucks at the grocery store and gets my pastries without trans fats.
Top, from left to right: Shortening and butter pie, coconut oil pie. Bottom, from left to right: All-butter pie, all-shortening pie.
So, after reflecting about the challenges that bakeries like Publix and The Fresh Market face, and the insights from the great Hedy Goldsmith, I decided to gather up a few trans fat free alternatives and embark on a bakery fat blind taste test.
The contenders? Four 100 percent artificial trans fat-free fats: Spectrum Organics Solid Shortening (palm oil), coconut oil, butter and a combination of butter and shortening.
The tasters? Four reluctant dessert lovers, lured by promises of freshly baked pies.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the sweet results.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.
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