Tommy’s Ban on Trans Fats

Banning trans fats: Would you rather pay more for food or less for health care?

by Debbi Snook, Plain Dealer
November 7, 2013

Jason Wanska, line cook at Tommy’s Restaurant on Conventry in Cleveland Heights, holds out a late of french fries cooked in a canola oil. The FDA is getting ready to ban trans fats, which Tommy’s no longer uses, but it will be a big change for the restaurant business nation wide. In the back is Mike Chattem, also a cook at Tommy’s. (Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)

CLEVELAND, Ohio — You won’t find worrisome trans fats in the deep fryer at Tommy’s on Coventry.

“We’re already safe,” said Tommy Fello, owner of the Cleveland Heights restaurant.

Fello is one restaurant owner who is not struggling with Thursday’s move by the federal government to start legally eradicating trans fats. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday issued a tentative determination that trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption. A final determination would end with food companies being prevented from using the ingredient.

08newtransfats.jpgFood producers like Fello know the decision to ditch trans fats comes at a cost

He pays extra for oils that do not include partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, another name for trans fats, an ingredient linked to heart disease.

It costs him at least $2,500 more a year to do it. “We use the premium stuff,” he said. “It’s better for you.”

But other food business owners could have trouble adjusting, says Steve Schimoler, chef and owner of Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland.

“My first question is when will trans fats be banned,” said Schimoler, who says he makes it a point to use few, if any, trans fats.

“It can’t happen overnight. If it does, the whole food industry is in trouble.

“I’m sitting here looking at a gift basket from a client full of retail-type convenience foods, and I guarantee you that half of them have some trans fats. Millions and millions of pounds of prepared foods, including some in bottles and jars, have some trans fats.

“What is the government going to tell us to do with them, dump them in the ocean? If they want this to happen overnight, it will prove once again that they don’t understand the food industry.”

Representatives of both Nestle (which owns Stouffer’s) and Orrville-based J.M. Smucker said they were already at work eliminating trans fats from their products.

“We fully support the efforts of the FDA to improve public health,” said Nestle’s spokesperson Roz O’Hearn. “The large majority of Nestlé foods and beverages do not contain partially hydrogenated oils (added trans fats) as we have been actively working to remove them from our foods. We have made good progress and will continue our journey to remove all remaining partially hydrogenated oils.”

The science to replace trans fat is there, said Maribeth Burns, a spokeswoman for J.M. Smucker Co.

“Food science and technology enhancements have provided the food industry with opportunities for successful product reformulation for the removal of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs),” she said in a statement. “The J.M. Smucker Company has been transitioning PHOs out of the very limited number of products where the ingredient remained in response to changes in consumer preference.

“The FDA’s announcement will not impact our business as we are confident all of our product reformulations will be complete well before the FDA implements any new rules.”

A spokesperson for Giant Eagle expressed more caution in reacting to the FDA’s move.

“The health and well-being of our Team Members and customers is paramount,” said spokesman Dan Donovan. “We work diligently to ensure that our stores follow all relevant Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules and regulations. We are aware of today’s FDA announcement regarding their preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not “generally recognized as safe” or “GRAS” for use in food, and are awaiting further detail from the FDA before reviewing the potential impact in our locations during the coming years.”

It may take a while for replacement ideas to trickle down. One local pizza dough manufacturer, who declined to be identified, said he was surprised to see partially hydrogenated oil on his ingredient label.

“I’m surprised,” he said. “My supplier only uses the good stuff.”

Terry Frick, of Frickaccio’s, makers of pizza bagels at the West Side Market, said she chose not to have trans fats in any of her dough. She uses olive oil and even offers an organic version of her dough. But she uses some shortening in cookies.

“I don’t know how people are going to get around it. If you’re baking an old recipe, it may be hard for some bakeries to switch over.”

The Food and Drug Administration has been in a long-term effort to get trans fats out of the market. In 2006, it made food manufacturers label the amount of trans fats in their products. Many complied, although a loophole allowed producers to use the term “0 Trans Fats” on a product that had less than half a gram of those fats per serving. Instead of listing trans fats in the ingredients, many used the less-recognized term, “partially hydrogenated oil,” which often includes trans fats.

An individual strongly dependent on processed foods still could end up eating pounds of trans fats per year, increasing the possibility of getting heart disease.

In the FDA statement today, commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, said that while trans fats have been reduced in the market, reducing them further “could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.”

Dr. David Frid, head of heart disease prevention at Cleveland Clinic, sided with the FDA’s move.

“I think it’s not an unreasonable move to consider because trans fats do have a public health impact.” Not every individual suffers from trans fats the same way, he said, but studies have shown that they raise bad cholesterol (that helps develop plaque in the arteries), lower good cholesterol (that can help get rid of bad cholesterol) and can lower our glucose tolerance, among other problems.

Trans fats are a chemically manipulated fat created by blending with hydrogen. It solidifies easily, making foods seem less greasy. It is commonly used in industrially produced French fries, peanut butter, cakes, pizzas, coffee creamers, margarines, desserts and microwave popcorn.

The public has 60 days to comment, and if the comments lead to a ruling that the ingredient is not safe, a ban could take place.

A statement from the agency said it “would provide adequate time for producers to reformulate products in order to minimize market disruption.”

Reporters Janet Cho and Angela Townsend contributed to this story.

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