What's Missing From This Cookie?

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The classic Oreo is promoted as America's favorite cookie. But Americans are a diverse crowd, so the Oreo now comes in many configurations. In addition to the traditional chocolate wafer sandwich filled with vanilla cream, there are double-stuffed ones (with vanilla or peanut-butter cream), chocolate-covered ones (in different flavors) and even reduced-fat and sugar-free Oreos.

Something for everybody. Then along came the trans-fat rule, and the Oreo universe changed.

Trans fats are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used by manufacturers of processed foods as food stabilizers and flavor enhancers.

But they have a dark side. Scientific studies found that trans fats raised bad cholesterol, lowered good cholesterol and contributed to diabetes and heart problems. As a result, in July 2003 the Food and Drug Administration issued a rule requiring manufacturers to print the amount of trans fats on nutrition labels by Jan. 1, 2006.

Food manufacturers, including Kraft Foods, which owns the Oreo brand, were given those 2 1/2 years to figure out a way to maintain the flavor and stability of their signature products without using trans fats -- or disclose the presence of the unhealthy fats on food labels.

In late December, Kraft announced that its products, including Oreos, would meet the trans-fat labeling deadline. And in January, as the cookies were trucked to the nation's grocery stores, Kraft spokeswoman Laurie Guzzinati announced the newest version of the 94-year-old icon: the trans-fat-free Oreo.

We wondered if Kraft's trans-fat-free recipe would pass muster with the public as a "real Oreo." So, in December, we bought packages of Oreos made the traditional way to subject them to a "blind" comparative taste test with the new ones. We also decided to test cookies that were developed without trans fats in the first place.

To do the honors, we invited two local pastry chefs: Steve Klc of Zaytinya in the Penn Quarter and Kate Jansen of Willow Restaurant in the Ballston area of Arlington. Here are their findings:

OId vs. New

The defending champion : Oreos with trans fats.

The challenger: new Oreos without trans fats.

Our tasters found virtually no difference between the two. They praised the original for its good balance between the cream filling and the cookie, its attractive smell and its familiar taste. Trying the new trans-fat-free version, they sensed only slight differences -- a hint more salt and a slightly greater emphasis on the cream -- but found the cookies equal in sweetness, with similar mouth-feel to the filling. "I think you could pass both of them off as the same," said Klc.

Before the trans-fat rule, the amount of trans fat in a processed food could be the entire amount of unidentified fat -- in this case, 5.5 grams. According to the FDA rule that took effect Jan. 1, food manufacturers now may claim "zero trans fats" on a nutritional label as long as there is no more than 0.5 gram of fat in the serving size.

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