Trans fatty? Soon, perhaps not the Ratty

Many recipes at the Sharpe Refectory may have to change by this summer if proposed legislation is passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly. The bill would ban the use of artificial trans fats by any food service establishment by July 1, following in the steps of a nearly identical bill passed by the New York state legislature in December.

Artificial trans fats exist most commonly in cooking oils, shortenings and margarines, which are made with partially hydrogenated plant oils. The fats are often found in restaurants as an ingredient in fried food and baked goods.

John O’Shea, executive chef for Brown Dining Services, said some recipes served in campus eateries are made with artificial trans fats. Most baked goods and frosting served on campus are made with shortening that contains partially hydrogenated soybean oils, a kind of artificial trans fat, O’Shea said.

However, he said all Frialators – a brand of deep-fryers – at campus eateries use an oil called “Tri-Fri,” made of canola, grape seed and sunflower oil, which he called “a lot healthier” and free of trans fats. O’Shea called the proposed ban “the right way to go if it’s healthier for you” and said Dining Services wants to “be ahead of the curve” in terms of healthy eating.

Dining Services is looking to begin using shortenings free of trans fats in the near future, but O’Shea said switching over would be a “long process.” He said Dining Services has a “huge” recipe file, and recipes would need to be tested to see how they would be affected by a new kind of shortening. “We need to be comparing apples to apples as far as product consistency is concerned,” O’Shea said.

In numerous scientific studies, trans fats have been linked with coronary heart disease. Trans fats increase levels of low-density lipoprotein, commonly known as bad cholesterol, and decrease levels of high-density lipoprotein, often called good cholesterol. This shift in cholesterol levels contributes to coronary heart disease.

Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Dist. 21, introduced the bill into the House of Representatives with Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Dist. 19. Naughton told The Herald she believes legislators should always be “working on ways to promote wellness” and that good nutrition is an important element of wellness.

Naughton said a ban on trans fats is the most effective way to ensure good nutrition. She cited New York’s unsuccessful public education campaign, which aimed to teach consumers about the dangers of trans fats and encourage restaurants to voluntarily rid their food of the fats. “The FDA tried labels (on packaged foods), but restaurants don’t put labels on their food,” Naughton said.

There are consequences to poor public health, and people consuming trans fats are “suffering consequences needlessly,” Naughton said.

“We can change that,” she said. “Alternative products are readily available.”

After the New York ban on trans fats was passed, many large restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and KFC said they would eliminate trans fats nationwide. Naughton said she hopes Rhode Island can take advantage of the demand for food free of trans fats created by the New York ban. “It’s time for the market to shift,” she said.

Thayer Street restaurants, cafes and coffee shops would also be required to eliminate trans fats from their menus. Kathleen Barlow, a supervisor at Johnny Rockets, said she was aware of the proposed legislation but didn’t think it would affect the restaurant. “Our oil is soy vegetable,” she said. Barlow said she knew of the ban that had been passed in New York, but she said she wasn’t aware of any Johnny Rockets restaurants that had to change ingredients. “I think we would have heard about it,” she said.

Kabob and Curry Manager Zahiri Thinoon also said he was familiar with the proposed legislation and that the restaurant had already begun creating dishes without trans fats. Thinoon said the restaurant hoped to eliminate the use of artificial trans fats altogether soon.

Baked goods at the Starbucks on Thayer Street are already completely free of trans fats, according to nutritional information on the company’s Web site. Baked goods at Dunkin’ Donuts and Au Bon Pain do contain artificial trans fats, with the highest levels in pastries such as doughnuts, danishes and croissants.