Philadelphia Council Urged Not to Open Trans Fat Loophole

Even Butter is Far Better than Using Artificial Trans Fat in Baked Goods, Says CSPI


The Philadelphia City Council did exactly the right thing in February when it unanimously voted to phase out the use of artificial trans fat in restaurants, and health advocates say it should not open a new loophole for baked goods. On Tuesday the council will hold a hearing on a proposal advanced by operators of several bakeries, which would give them a special exemption to continue to use partially hydrogenated oil in cakes, pastries, and other foods. But according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, this is one squeaky wheel that shouldn’t get the (ahem) grease.

“Philadelphia restaurants that deep-fry, from big fast-food chains to small cheesesteak shops, have already gotten the artificial partially hydrogenated oils out of their deep-fryers,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, who on Wednesday will testify at a committee hearing on the amendment. “Bakeries and other restaurants have been given an extra year to replace artificial trans fat in baked goods, even though healthier oils, shortenings with zero grams of trans fat, and good old-fashioned butter are perfectly abundant.”

The artificial trans fat that the City Council voted to phase out comes only from partially hydrogenated oil. Partially hydrogenated oil was first produced about 100 years ago when chemists were looking for a cheap substance for making candles. Because it resembled lard in appearance but cheaper than lard or butter, it caught on for baking. Though once believed to be healthier than butter, researchers now know that the artificial trans fat in partially hydrogenated oil promotes heart disease by raising bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol.

One Philadelphia bakery has complained that it was impossible to make its pound cake without partially hydrogenated shortening. But most recpies for pound cake don’t even call for that artificial ingredient, according to CSPI. Traditionally, pound cake is made with flour, butter, sugar, and eggs—ingredients that may not be health foods, but that at least are rooted in tradition. In fact, CSPI found that of 30 recipes for pound cake on the popular web site, none call for artificial trans fat.

“In our bakery, we wouldn't dream of using artificial trans fats,” said Rebecca Michaels, owner and pastry chef at the Flying Monkey Patisserie at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. “Traditional baking was designed to use ingredients that come from nature, which quite simply yield a tastier and healthier product.”

“The idea that partially hydrogenated oil is some kind of artisanal ingredient, passed down through the ages in secret family recipes, is ludicrous,” said Jacobson. “It’s an artificial ingredient that was used to replace natural ingredients because it was cheap. And as it turns out, it’s more harmful than any fats that occur in nature. If we’re going to be nostalgic about the recipes of yesteryear, we should be nostalgic for the foods that came from farms, not factories.”

“We have a strong commitment to using all natural ingredients,” said Amy Beth Edelman, owner of the Night Kitchen Bakery, which has outlets in Philadelphia and Doylestown, PA. “The high quality of our products has made our reputation as one of the best bakeries in the city. More people are beginning to understand that a higher out of pocket cost can mean a lower cost to their health and well-being.”

Small independent bakeries aren’t the only restaurants shunning artificial trans fats in favor of natural fats, according to CSPI. Starbucks went trans-fat-free earlier this year, and in August Dunkin’ Donuts eliminated most of the artificial trans fat in its products. McDonald’s is using trans-fat-free oil for deep-frying in Philadelphia, New York City, and in many other markets and anticipates rolling it out nationwide later this year.