An apron and a badge: Chefs and the law combat bad fats

TRAVERSE CITY – Restaurateur Jamie Washburn put a lot of care into the d├ęcor of his new Traverse City whitefish and chips spot, Scalawags, but it's the small triangular table tents that are catching customers' eyes.

"They read them, pick them up and say, 'Thank you!'" said Jamie.

The table tents inform diners that all the fish, and "chips' (French fries) prepared on site are cooked in Fry-On, a brand of trans fat-free cooking oil.

"It costs a few dollars more, but it's worth it," Washburn said. "There is no difference in the taste of the food, but the oil is cholesterol free, which is really important to our customers."

In 2006 the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat content on packaging labels. These so-called "bad fats" have been part of the American diet for decades, and are found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils originally thought to be healthier than the butter and lard they replaced. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are used in many commercially-prepared baked goods like cakes and cookies, and pie and pizza crusts. If you check the ingredient label, you will also find them in some snacks like chips and crackers. They haunt the deep fryer in many fast food restaurants, but not at Scalawags.

You won't find trans fats in Oryana's deli, or in any of the products on the store's shelves, either. Amical, 310, Bubba's, Home Grown Organic Eatery, and Hanna also use oil with no trans fats. Chefs and/or owners at each restaurant said they made the choice because the health of their customers is an important element of their business. The medical community has been compiling and disseminating evidence that consumption of trans fats can lead to health problems.

"Consumption of trans fatty acids increases the risk of coronary heart disease," reported The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in its April 13, 2006 issue. "Ten to nineteen percent of coronary heart disease events in the United States could be averted by reducing the intake of trans fat." In exact numbers, the NEJM reported, that could mean between 72,000 and 228,000 fewer heart attacks per year. Other reports in the NEJM link the consumption of trans fats to breast cancer, diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure.

None of this surprises another local restaurateur, Tanya Winkelmann. For the past few years she has watched her husband Chris, son Dre, and daughter Samantha struggle with health issues. When prescription medicine gave them only limited relief from their varied symptoms, Winkelmann began doing research into the foods they ate. What she found shocked her.

"High fructose corn syrup, pesticides, MSG, chemicals, trans fats," she said. "All bad and I threw it all out."

Since then, the Winkelmann family eats only organically-grown produce, natural sweeteners, no trans fats, and Tanya says their health has improved. That is the same food preparation philosophy she and her husband use in their new restaurant, Home Grown Organic Eatery. The couple opened the restaurant in August on West Grandview Parkway across from the Open Space. The menu is small, but diverse; there are sandwiches, salads, soups, burritos, specialty pizzas, and baked pasta dishes.

A few blocks away, baker Mike Busley of the Grand Traverse Pie Co. predicted that more and more anecdotal health evidence like that of the Winkelmanns will change how people eat. A desire to provide yummy pies while acknowledging changing nutrition needs inspired Busley to find out if he could eliminate trans fats from his pie crust.

"Eating piecrust will never be like eating sprouts," Busley said. "The dilemma from our standpoint is that sales are up, but so is consumer awareness and we're addressing that. Someday, I'd like to have a store in Chicago."

The Grand Traverse Pie Company operates nine stores with a tenth scheduled to open this year. About 4,000 pies a week are prepared, and the piecrust recipe is a guarded secret that hasn't been changed one pinch since Mike opened the first store with his wife Denise a decade ago.

"We take that recipe very seriously," he said. "I could change this store in a week but we have the other stores to think about, too. If we're going to make a change, we want to make the right change."

The Busleys are working with Fred Laughlin, director of Northwestern Michigan College's Culinary Institute, to develop recipes that taste good but cut out trans fats. New shortenings recently on the market could make that possible by May 1, he said. Then he said he'd take a look at the store's recipes for salads and sandwiches and see if he can eliminate trans fats from those, too.

Nationwide, there is a movement to remove trans fats from all prepared foods, organized by the consumer group Ban Trans Fats. In December, New York City outlawed the use of cooking oil containing trans fats by restaurants. On Christmas Eve a ban at all restaurants at Disneyland and Disney World theme parks went into effect. And Canada, as well as the city of Chicago, are each considering a similar ban. BN