Locals prepare for proposed ban on trans fats

Locals prepare for proposed ban on trans fats

The Food and Drug Administration's proposed ban on partially hydrogenated oils could change the taste, texture and consistency not only of processed foods, but also of many of the products that come out of local bakeries. Around the region, they're racing to find suitable replacements for this ingredient normally used in frostings and pies.

The ban would apply to artificial trans fats found in products such as margarine, coffee creamers, frozen pizzas and microwave popcorn, as well as many crackers and pastries. Companies, both local and national, would have to find alternatives to the artificial fats, which do not occur naturally in meat and dairy products.

According to the FDA, the reduction of artificial trans fat in the U.S. could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease per year. It would also change the contents of many shelves in the grocery aisle.

National companies from Cargill, a major supplier of fats and oils to restaurant chains, to General Mills, the maker of many popular snacks and cereals, are still looking for viable ways to replace the ingredient.

But the change would also alter the products found in many local shops.

"Margarine as we know it would be illegal," pointed out Paul Dulude, production manager at Wright's Dairy Farm.

"It does affect a lot of recipes in baking," said Dulude. "There are some major drawbacks as far as texture."

Partially hydrogenated oils are vegetable oils treated with heat, pressure and hydrogen. They were created by chemists in the early 1900s with the intent of replacing saturated fats.

If the ban, which is currently in the midst of a 60-day comment period that started in November, is finalized, desserts like cookies, cakes and doughnuts could become more oily. Those items often rely on trans fats to give them a lighter texture.

Several states have implemented their own bans over the past several years, and Dulude says his bakery has been preparing for the switch, making the change to butter in many recipes. Still, Dulude says, the bakery has yet to find suitable replacements for some items, particularly the shortening found in pie dough products and frostings.

"The replacement they want us to use is palm oil," said Dulude "It's very chunky so it leaves lumps."

The FDA has made a preliminary determination on the issue, which is still under review. Currently, the agency is collecting data and is getting input on the time potentially needed for food manufacturers to reformulate their products should the determination be finalized. If the ban is finalized, partially hydrogenated oils would be considered "food additives" and could no longer be used.

The fats also lengthen the shelf life of products, and the Groceries Manufacturers Association pointed out that much of the move away from trans fats has thus far been voluntary.

"Through our efforts at product reformulation and the development of suitable alternatives, trans fats that are not naturally occurring have been drastically reduced in the food supply," the organization said in a statement about the FDA decision.

"Since 2005, food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their food products by over 73 percent."

The restaurant chain Chipotle uses hydrogenated oil in its tortillas, and states on its website that it hopes to eliminate them "someday." That day may come sooner than they expect.

Local restaurant owners, who tend to use more fresh ingredients, must nonetheless look at what's used in their deep fryers. Many seem less concerned.

"Our oil is zero trans fat so we don't expect it to affect us much," said Dave Gouin, manager of River Falls Restaurant in Woonsocket. Gouin said the restaurant made the move away from hydrogenated oils several years ago.

"It was the trend because people started eating healthier," he said.

For bakers, Dulude said, the change is an industry-wide problem. For years, he says he's been working with manufacturers and trying out samples.

"I don't know anyone in the industry who's had success with it," he said.