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Break free of trans fats

When the Food and Drug Administration announced that the level of trans fats must be revealed on labels starting January 1, 2006, packaged-food makers quickly found ways to reduce them. Now that New York City may require all of its 24,600 foodservice establishments to go virtually trans-fat free—with Chicago eyeing a similar move—restaurateurs all over wonder if they’re next. And if so, what to do about it.

Greg Drescher of the Culinary Institute of America says that trans-fat-free canola and soybean oils work just as well in the fryer. And operators who’ve modified their menus agree: fried chicken at Sylvia’s, a soul-food institution in Harlem, has been just as popular since a switch last year, and Wendy’s successfully converted to a virtually trans-fat-free soy-corn oil in August.

A move away from trans fats could even stretch culinary horizons. “This would be a good time to switch from margarine to more flavorful oils,” Drescher says. He also advocates substituting creamy avocado for trans-fat thickeners in salad dressings, and taking a cue from the Mediterranean kitchen where sauces are enriched with pounded nuts. Since saturated fats are deemed less damaging than trans fats, Drescher suggests using traditional products like butter and fully hydrogenated fats in flakey pastry, and even moderate amounts of once demonized tropical oils like palm and coconut, which have less saturated fat than butter.

New trans-fat-free products have hit the market. Crisco has a consumer vegetable shortening and foodservice supplier Ventura Foods has a Trans Fat Free Kitchen line which includes canola and soybean cooking oils; a liquid butter alternative; and Pride buttery spread, which is low in saturated fat. Trans-fat-free solid shortening and margarine are also in the works.

Still, Drescher admits, dishes partly prepared elsewhere, such as par cooked French fries, are hard to control, and some trans-fat-free vegetable oils still cost more and oxidize faster. He feels prices could come down by 2008, when growers ramp up production to meet larger demand. Yet even if menu prices do rise a bit with the new requirements, “government intervention levels the playing field, so that no one is at a competitive disadvantage,” says Drescher.       

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