FORBIDDEN FAT: Trans fat booted by state law
California is once again making headlines as a front-runner in the battle against obesity by becoming the first state to phase out trans fats in restaurants and baked goods.
And while some of the state’s 88,000 food purveyors scramble to find a substitute for the largely synthetic fat, Truckee-Tahoe restaurateurs say they’re a step ahead of the legislation.
Under the new law, shortening, oil or margarine containing artificial trans fats will be banned from restaurant products starting in 2010, and from all baked goods by 2011, according to the bill’s author, Tony Mendoza, a Democratic assemblyman and former fourth-grade teacher.
“We are taking a risk when we consume food and products that contain trans fats. This is an invisible and dangerous ingredient that increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure,” Mendoza said in a news release. “It had to be eliminated.”
But in the high Sierra where health takes precedence over most things edible, local restaurant and bakery owners say they’ve already moved away from trans fats in response to consumer demands.
“There’s such a public outcry for healthier foods in Truckee-Tahoe,” said Misty Young, owner of downtown Truckee’s Squeeze In. “We decided to reduce trans fats out of the restaurant right away … I’m proud to say we’ve been ahead of the curve for about five years.”
It wasn’t as easy to accomplish five years ago when the term trans fat was misunderstood by most food retailers and consumers, but after doing some research, Young said she found a soy-based oil that was comparable in price, but not in health problems.
“When we met with the food service distributor and said we needed something that doesn’t include trans fats, he laughed,” Young said. “So we found a different supplier. It wasn’t hard at all.”
The Squeeze In isn’t the only restaurant on Truckee’s Commercial Row to squeeze out the fatty acid. Moody’s Bistro, Dragonfly and nearly every restaurant in between boasts a non-trans fat menu, said Kaili Sanchez, program director for Project Mana, a local organization dedicated to promoting nutrition.
“The law won’t be affecting that many restaurants here … most have stopped using trans fats, even many of the fast food restaurants,” Sanchez said.
Local food purveyors may not have to change their ingredients much, but the new bill ” AB 97 ” may have a positive effect on their numbers, Sanchez said.
“I could see this stimulating the economy,” Sanchez said. “People will be more confident in what they’re eating. They won’t have to compromise their health if they go to a restaurant.”
Because trans fats are commonly found in baked goods like pies, croissants and cookies, some bakers across the state may have trouble finding an alternative oil, but the 2011 deadline has local pastry chefs confident.
“We’ve been phasing trans fats out of everything we can for a while now … but there are certain things that don’t work without it,” said Barbara Vogt, owner of the West Shore’s Tahoe House. “I’m glad we have the window of time to let purveyors catch up with new products.”
The new law will be enforced by local health inspectors who will examine product labels to ensure no trans fats are being used, and violators will face fines anywhere from $25 to $1,000, according to Mendoza.
Trans fats arise during a process known as hydrogenation, which transforms liquid oils into semi-solids, and helps prolong the shelf life of products, said Heather Lutz, a registered dietitian at Tahoe Forest Hospital.
But researchers now link the trans fatty acid, which was once considered a healthy alternative, to high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity, Lutz said.
Those who support the elimination of trans fats are glad to see the state take action, but opposition has been expressed from the California Restaurant Association, which proclaims that a health ban should be left in the hands of the federal government, not the state, said spokesman Daniel Conway.
“It’s more of a philosophical opposition than a defense of trans fats,” Conway said. “This type of decision would best be made at a federal level by an agency like the Food and Drug Administration.”
Perhaps a health ban should be in the realm of the federal government, but either way, the new law of the land will be good for the consumer’s health, said Billy McCullough, owner of chef of Dragonfly.
“It’s a tough thing when the government jumps in and makes an issue for health, but I think we’ve proven as nation have a hard time making our own decisions on what’s healthy, so maybe we do need some help,” McCullough said. “It’s great to see the whole state move forward with that, especially to protect the heritage of the food culture here in California.”