The Food Police are on the march.
Last month, New York City's Health Department moved to outlaw trans fat, the oil found in everything from hot crispy French fries to rich slabs of flaky apple pie, from the city's 24,600 restaurants. Chicago's health commissioner proposed a similar ban the following week. And in Los Angeles, the county's public health department announced last week that it's considering a similar initiative, with the director calling the New York proposal a "courageous and pioneering" action.
Clearly, something is cooking.
In Portland, whose restaurants and food culture are as vital to the identity of this city as jazz clubs are to Memphis, trans fat isn't illegal—quite yet.
"I think a ban sounds like a great idea," says city Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who heads Portland's Office of Sustainable Development. "I'd be prepared to lend my moral support."
Multnomah County officials say they're also monitoring the proposals in New York and elsewhere.
"I'm watching it carefully," says Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey, who also serves as a board member of the American Heart Association. "I'm certainly keeping an eye on what's going to happen in New York.
"I think that the potential ban in New York and Chicago has brought attention to the dangers of trans fat and heart disease, which is the No. 1 killer of women in Oregon," she says. "This has brought up a really good, important discussion about trans fat."
Local restaurateurs, however, don't share such a rosy view. "If somebody wants to suck down a gallon of Crisco, what do I care?," says Adam Higgs, owner of the Zagat-rated Creole restaurant Acadia on Northeast Fremont Street. "It's silly to waste dollars on that sort of activity, banning trans fats...and telling people what they can eat."
While the ban's promoters in New York say they're just trying to save the public from a dangerous fat, critics are screaming Big (Fat) Brother. After all, public health and safety proposals are nothing new. Smoking is banned in bars and restaurants in New York and L.A. Foie gras is illegal in Chicago. Similar efforts have been less successful in Portland. But could banning trans fat be the cause that finally takes hold locally?
First, a primer: Trans fat, also known as trans fatty acids, is a naturally occurring ingredient, found in small amounts in beef and dairy products. But what the Food Police is talking about is artificial trans fat, which is created by forcing hydrogen into a vat of liquid vegetable oil. The chemical process turns the oils into solids (think Crisco). The benefits? Trans fat has a ridiculously long shelf life (it's why Twinkies never seem to get stale). And it lends an exceptional texture and flavor to fried and baked goods that cannot be replicated with other oils.
In 1990, McDonald's replaced the beef tallow in its fryers with trans fats. And margarine, which is loaded with the oil, became popular in part because it was thought to be a healthy alternative to butter.
But that has all changed. Recent research by the Institute of Medicine, National Academies of Science and others has revealed that trans fat actually raises your "bad" cholesterol and lowers your "good" cholesterol, which can contribute to heart disease, the top cause of death nationally and in Oregon.
Since that academic epiphany, much of the medical community has been on the warpath, leading the charge alongside politicians against trans fats.
"Hydrogenated vegetable oil is a toxic substance that does not belong in food," says Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, whose research is being used by New York City officials to support their proposed ban.
Last January, the federal Food and Drug Administration ruled that all packaged foods must list the trans fat content on their labels. So far the FDA has not determined an amount that is safe to eat daily, although it still classifies trans fat as "generally safe for consumption." The directive added further urgency for major food purveyors like Kraft Foods and Frito Lay to come out with everything from trans fat-free Oreos to Doritos.
Tiburon, Calif., was ahead of the curve. In 2005, the 18 restaurants in the tiny city just north of San Francisco voluntarily decided to stop cooking with trans fats. Green heart-shaped stickers reading, "We use trans fat FREE cooking oil" are now affixed in cafe windows.
Even though the health concerns trans fat raises are on the radar across the civilized world—in 2003, for example, Denmark passed a law outlawing food with more than 2 percent trans fat—New York's decision to ban it in restaurants really raised the alarm. Last year, the city asked restaurants to voluntarily stop cooking with trans fat. Few complied, leading the NYC health department to recommend a complete ban.
"New Yorkers are consuming a hazardous, artificial substance without their knowledge or consent," said New York Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden at last month's press conference, a claim echoed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others supporting the proposal. The ban would allow restaurants to use no more than half a gram of trans fat per serving—about the same amount as in a few McDonald's fries—which would effectively eliminate artificial trans fat in that city's kitchens.
Determining which Portland restaurants use trans fat in their cooking is a bit of a mystery. Many fast-food restaurants freely admit that they use trans fat in their food, though Wendy's and the locally owned Burgerville chain claim they've virtually stricken it from their fryers. While McDonald's says it's working to eliminate trans fat, the chain, along with Burger King, Taco Bell and others, still cooks with the oil—heavily. Fries, chips, fish, pies and other basic fast-food fare all take a dip in the deep fryer with trans fat, which packs the food with a crispy punch without imparting a strong oily flavor. Pastry chefs and bakers use trans fat shortenings to give crusts and cookies like snickerdoodles a rich, flaky texture. Doughnut makers face similar challenges. A Top Pot apple fritter at Starbucks packs 7 grams of trans fat, a little more than a large order of fast-food fries.
Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson, co-owner of Voodoo Doughnuts, acknowledges that his bacon maple bars and jelly-filleds are fried in trans fat. But as he says, "You've got to be pretty silly if you don't know that a doughnut is bad for you."
Determining which fine-dining establishments use the fat is quite a bit trickier.
Pascal Sauton, owner and head chef at downtown French bistro Carafe, says he does not cook with trans fat. His menu does includes plenty of frites, which are often deep fried in trans fat at other restaurants, but he swears he cooks with butter, olive oil and rice oil instead. Nevertheless, the idea of a ban strikes him as ridiculous.
"We're in a time where not only is it easy to get educated, but people, especially in the media, talk about these health issues constantly," says Sauton. "Think about it: People watch TV 24 hours a day, but then they sue McDonald's because they get fat! I don't want to be told what to cook—it's more about the education of the consumer."
At Mother's Bistro, downtown Portland's upscale comfort food hub, chef-owner Lisa Schroeder says she's never cooked with trans fat. Her calamari and fries are cooked in canola oil, she says. Even so, she thinks striking trans fat from restaurant kitchens is nuts, and could have a waterfall effect.
"I think there's a real concern about democracy here," says Schroeder. "First there was a possible ban on foie gras, now a ban on trans fatty acids. What's next? Whip cream? It makes you start wondering about other things, like cigarettes. They haven't been banned yet—why?"
But not every restaurateur is sold on the idea of trans fat for all: One local restaurant has already moved aggressively to eliminate trans fat—and turned it into a marketing campaign. At the Corbett Fish House, which has a location on Southwest Corbett Avenue and recently opened a second location on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, fryers have been trans fat-free for more than two years.
"We became aware that there was this new food thing that was going to be major," says co-owner Greg Boyce. "So we immediately started working on ways to get it out of our food."
The outcome, says Boyce, was successful. They fry their fish and potatoes in rice bran oil, a trans fat alternative. Both their menu and website plug their fish not only as "Portland's Best" but also as "healthy" and "trans fat-free." Boyce says the flavor and texture are just as good and that diners still rave, although he admits an expert might detect a difference.
"In a blind taste test, only someone with really specialized taste would be able to tell," says Boyce. " We have had absolutely zero comments from customers. No one seemed to notice when we switched oils."
David Mackay, who presides over fish-and-chips destination Halibut's on Northeast Alberta Street, however, laughs at those who think you can easily substitute for trans fat. And he suspects that some chefs who claim they don't use it in their deep fryers aren't being honest.
"A lot of people are literally lying about it," says Mackay. "Most people who cook fish and chips are buying pre-cooked fish that they cook twice, and they're gonna lie to you about that, too."
A red-faced and boisterous former bartender, Mackay says he experimented with substitutes like canola oil last year before concluding that it made food taste like cardboard. He ended up dumping 300 pounds of trans fat-free oil after only three days.
"After I tasted the zero trans fat oil, I said take that nasty shit out of my freaking fryers, because that stuff stays in the freaking fish," says Mackay. "I'm taking bites of the fish cooked in it, and the shit's running down my face."
So Mackay reverted to the bad stuff.
"The reason I cook with partially hydrogenated oil is because it tastes good," says Mackay. "My oil seals the fish and leaves it perfectly flaky."
On a rainy Wednesday night several weeks ago, Halibut's was full, and harried waitresses shuttled basket after heaping basket of fried halibut, catfish, ahi and potatoes from the kitchen to diners. Mackay says that both he and his customers regard his fish as a treat—and should know it's not something that should be a regular part of their diet.
"Nobody can argue that trans fat's not bad for you," says Mackay. "Of course my fish will make your ass four feet across if you eat it every day. That's just what it is!"
Trans fat isn't health food by anyone's measure, but some experts say that the risk has been exaggerated. Dr. William Connor, a professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at Oregon Health & Science University, and co-author of New American Diet Cookbook, says that while trans fat isn't good for you, it's not nearly as dangerous as New York health officials claim.
"It's not a poison," says Connor, who's researched trans fat since the 1960s. "In other words, only when trans fats are present in considerable amounts can it cause heart disease."
It's estimated that a trans fat ban would prevent about 500 deaths from heart disease annually in New York, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Proportionally, that number would probably be far less in Portland. But nationally, nearly 2,500 people die every day from cardiovascular disease—about one person every 35 seconds, according to the American Heart Association.
"When we're having a million people dying every year from heart disease, the amount that banning trans fat from restaurants would save is minimal," says Connor.
The real pressing health concern, according to Connor and other local nutritionists and doctors, isn't trans fat but excess calorie consumption, diabetes and obesity. While the trans fat ban has captured headlines, part of the New York initiative would also require restaurants to label the amount of calories in their dishes—something experts say would do far more to remedy the problem of heart disease.
If you realized that your five-piece Walla Walla onion rings from Burgerville packed around 800 calories, would you still eat it?
"From a policy perspective, portion sizes, the proliferation of junk food, processed foods and abundant nutrient-poor food is much more of a public health problem then trans fats," says Nancy R. Becker, a nutritional consultant with the Community Health Partnership in Portland. "It's curious to me that so many people are making this the issue."
In Oregon, much of the state's food policy efforts have focused on educating the public about calories and physical activity, according to state epidemiologist Mel Kohn.
"The trans fat thing isn't a non-issue for us," says Kohn. "But if you eat lots of healthy oils, and you're taking in too many calories, just because the oils are healthy doesn't mean that that's good for you."
If officials plan to chip away at restaurants, however, they're probably in for a fight. Angry restaurateurs aside, the mere suggestion of a local ban has raised hackles among Portland foodies as well.
Local culinary websites were abuzz after the announcement of the New York plan last month. On "An Exploration of Portland Food and Drink" (portlandfoodanddrink.com), remarks about the potential ban were reminiscent of the foie gras debate, with one person calling the proposal a "food police state scenario."
"Where is my freedom of choice going? If I want some greasy-ass food, I should be able to get some," wrote "Apollo." "If any foods ever become illegal around here, I [sic] opening up a black market supper club. You are all invited. Foie gras and truffled French fries for everybody."
Fears of overzealous government regulation also dominated the discussion on "Portland Food" (portlandfood.org), with threads about a "nanny statehood" and the constitutionality of a ban.
"The legal ambiguity of banning something 'because it's bad for you' has been tried in the wild before (see: alcohol) and it didn't work out so hot for the US," wrote "ZenBoy." "I can't imagine a world where you'd go to an underground club to eat faux-KFC or McFries out of the prying eyes of some kind of FDA task force, but I imagine that the idea of having to hide your beer from the FBI wasn't exactly believable before it happened either."
While having to illegally score a trans fat fix might not be an immediate reality in Portland, the clock may be ticking for New Yorkers. The city's health officials will hold public hearings on the potential ban next Monday, Oct. 30, and expect to vote on the proposal by December. And state and local officials here are paying attention.
"We're very aware of what's going on in New York," says Kohn, "and we're watching what's happening with a great deal of interest."
Eat your doughnuts while you still can.
Into The Fryer
You may not be able to see or smell trans fat in your food, but your taste buds know the difference. Last weekend, we asked a few regular Portland joes to sample French fries from Halibut's restaurant, which cooks with trans fat, and the Corbett Fish House, which uses trans fat-free rice bran oil. Tasters rated the taste and texture on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing the perfect fries.
The result of our informal, and admittedly unscientific, poll? Halibut's won a solid victory over the Corbett fries in each category. Here's a roundup of what our tasters thought:
Taste: 4"You can taste the potato instead of the fat it was cooked in. They're really excellent, just what French fries should taste like."
Texture: 3"Totally crispy on the outside, and not too mushy inside. A perfect fry."
Corbett Fish House
Taste: 3"The French fries are good, but the flavor seems a little off. The potato flavor isn't strong enough."
Texture: 2"The fries are soggy, like they've been soaked in oil."
An interesting middle ground between banning trans fat and doing nothing is asking restaurants to label the trans fat content of food on their menus.
A Starbucks espresso brownie has 8 grams of trans fat. A large order of McDonald's fries has 6 grams of trans fat. And a piece of battered fish and fries from Long John Silver's has 14 grams of trans fat—about the amount in 8 tablespoons of Crisco.
In Oregon, 34 percent of residents report high cholesterol, a figure only slightly higher than the national average, according to a 2003 survey by the Centers for Disease Control.
One drawback of changing from trans fat oil is that the trans fat-free versions can be more expensive. While rice bran oil itself is actually slightly cheaper than partially hydrogenated oils, it's good for only six or seven days in the fryer, while the trans fat oil lasts about 10.