Trans fat legislation is likely coming to an area near you, if it hasn’t already. But, emerging techniques and technologies help make the switch to trans fat-free
baking a more reasonable proposition.
The New York City Board of Health's 2006 mandate to remove trans fats from the more than 22,000 foodservice establishments seemed to be a shot across the bow for bakeries. A type of nanny state legislation that had existed in Europe for years had made landfall in the United States, and bakers heard the thunderous footstep. On July 1, 2007, the first domino of a national trend toward legislation of trans fat-free legislation fell in New York City.
Indeed, trans fat, found in partially hydrogenated cooking, frying and baking oils, has been linked to some dirty words in terms of health. Coronary heart disease and bad cholesterol top a list of related health risks. While the old mantra of “everything in moderation” certainly should apply, the overwhelming prevalence of partially hydrogenated oils throughout the restaurant industry has governments nationwide looking into regulation. Bakers are getting caught in the crossfire, as they have come to rely on the unique characteristics of partially hydrogenated oils and shortenings, and consumers have come to expect the product characteristics they provide.
“We aren't cigarette companies. As a community retailer, I don't want to stand behind something like trans fat that can be harmful to my consumers,” says Richard Reinwald, owner of Reinwald's Bakery, Huntington, N.Y. “However, in the march towards trans fat-free, you can't sacrifice taste-it's the most important element of your product. Do everything you can to protect taste, it's the thing you'll have to fight for most.”
Though initially bristling over the legislation, Reinwald and other bakers could tell that it was a trend they'd have to address head on. Reformulations were a tough slog.
“Once I saw it was going to be legislated in New York, I knew that it would only be a matter of time before Massachusetts adopted a similar program, and sure enough, they did,” says Simon Stevenson, pastry chef and bakeshop manager for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “We got on this fairly early, looking at alternative fats and dealing with the problems that arose. Initially, we thought we'd go back to solid fats like butter and lard, but the expense of butter and the negative perception made us reconsider.”
The largest problem that Stevenson and other early trans fat-free experimenters faced was lack of precisely appropriate ingredient. Shortening and oil manufacturers had seen the writing on the wall with New York's decree and scrambled to get products to market, but some of the bakery-specific oils and shortenings took a backseat to more general foodservice oils. The research and development behind products taking aim at the baking industry would take months or years.
“To begin with, the products we had to deal with had problems with their smell, flavor and that greasy mouthfeel. The oils were great for French fries and chicken fingers, but it did not work for a donut product at all,” Stevenson says. “We went through lots of trial and error, and approached some companies to see what they had for a donut fry. It was disastrous, nothing seemed to work; we would pick up a cake donut, squeeze it, and the fat would just pour out.”
Pie dough and cake icing-products incorporating solid fat-took even more trial and error to perfect. With the pie dough, he had to deal with a range of problems: trans fat-free doughs did not firm enough in the cooler, and oils would seep out of the dough when it was rolled or sheeted. The product was not able to retain the fat. With the cake icings, Stevenson had difficulty with oxidization-the color would quickly change from white to yellow-and it didn't blend with colorings, making the workability either too stiff or too runny.
The situation has improved as oil and shortening technologies are catching up with demand. At the suggestion of the manufacturers, Stevenson arrived at a canola and hydrogenated cottonseed oil blend for cake icing. “It has been great. It doesn't oxidize, it holds up very well, stores in a refrigerator well, and also has good workability and good mouthfeel,” he says.
For pie crusts, Stevenson has found that straight palm oil produces good results. The manufacturer has been particularly helpful in making sure he is able to get the kind of product he needs. As more bakers dive into trans fat-free, some unwillingly, the body of knowledge surrounding alternative oil blends and techniques has increased. Oil manufacturers are great resources for this thickening book of strategies.
Stevenson has noticed that a greater variety of ingredients are out there now, much more than when he started. For pie dough, he approached one company, they sent him an ingredient he used and liked, but then it was difficult to source, Stevenson says. “Our biggest issue has been in distribution. I test it, like it, want to go with it, but distribution has been quite tough, just getting it from point A to point B.”
For a baking program at a large state university, it seems surprising that sourcing would be an issue. But for large baking operations, distributor bids can be infrequent-sometimes only coming up every few years-and the right products can be scarce when the supplier is shut out. Because new trans fat-free products are coming out more frequently, being small and nimble can be an advantage. But the small retail baker does face disadvantages.
“One reason we became dependant on partially hydrogenated vegetable shortenings is because it's cheaper, it's easier to store, and it lasts longer than, say, butter,” says CMB Noble Masi, of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y. “As bakers, we are forced to break ourselves of the habit not only at the wholesale formulation level, but also at the retail, craftsman level. Costs are going to increase.”
At the retail level, spatial constraints and decreased buying power issues erode economies of scale. Also, where a single partially hydrogenated shortening could be used for multiple bakery applications, each bakery application can require a different variety of trans fat-free shortening.
“The entire process of making sure that you have enough of each product on hand, but not too much to spoil, is really a management skill. It becomes part of your inventory control,” Stevenson says. “Trans fat-free oils are more difficult to manage, but you have to start to look at it like this: you have to carry the product, you need to make sure you can stay on top of it.”
Klaus Tenbergen, CMB and assistant professor at California State University-Fresno, thinks that, like the formulation problems trans fat-free oils presented a few years ago, sourcing issues will relax in coming months and years. He says butter and lard will never go away, but partially hydrogenated oils may disappear from food altogether. As more manufacturers introduce trans fat-free oils and availability increases, the price will drop. He believes eventually, the only oils readily available will be trans fat-free.
“It's something you cannot ignore. Sooner or later, you will be either fined by your local government or your customers will demand trans fat-free status,” he says. “Because manufacturers are releasing new technologies, and bakers are learning new techniques, the functional difference is shrinking to nothing.”
The mental obstacle
Even though her bakery had already occupied a healthful niche, Norma Chavez-Nielsen's customers at the Churrolandia Bakery and The Funnel Cake Factory, Whittier, Calif., initially balked when she decided to go entirely trans fat-free.
“I saw New York was doing it, and I knew California wouldn't be far behind, so I became the first small retail bakery in California to make the change,” she says. “But at first, I had to be careful to ensure people didn't mistake my more healthful bakery for a ‘diet bakery’ with sugar-free or gluten-free.”
Her bakery produces authentic pan dulce and other Latin specialties, and customers were initially hesitant about changes to a product so near and dear to their cultural identity. Women were generally more accepting than men, who even told her that they had come to get sweets and trans fats, groaning at the change.
“The loudest protests came from my own Mexican bakers. It was like pulling teeth to get them to use the trans fat-free shortenings,” Chavez-Nielsen says. “I finally had to psych them out with a little placebo experiment. I secretly packaged the trans fat-free shortening in the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil container they were used to. They couldn't believe it when I told them; they couldn't tell the difference in the handling characteristics or the flavor.”
Tenbergen notes McDonald's changed its French fry oil to trans fat-free five years ago, and people grumbled. “Now, nobody notices, and McDonald's is doing as well as ever,” he says. “Trans fat-free oils and shortenings will be nothing more than the norm in the future.”
Trans fat legislation's growing scope
States with proposed or adopted trans fat legislation as of January 1, 2009
States considering legislation that would restrict or ban the use of trans fats, including bills proposed in 2007-2008 or enacted from 2006 through 2008, are listed below. Some bills would impose a statewide ban on trans fat in retail food establishments or chain restaurants, other bills propose to limit or ban trans fats in foods served in school cafeterias, or to study trans fat alternatives.
*Statewide ban passed
†Statewide ban under consideration
Localized legislation banning trans fats from restaurants and bakeries serving food (with some exceptions or specifications for labeled and packaged food), as of January 1, 2009:
Albany County, N.Y.
King County, Wash.
Montgomery County, Md.
New York City