Ban on Trans Fat Stirs Up Questions

Margie Denchfield of the Happy Baker says she will have to change family recipes if she can't use margarine.
Margie Denchfield of the Happy Baker says she will have to change family recipes if she can't use margarine. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bruce Mancuso scanned the nutrition label on the white box containing the corn and canola oil that his restaurant, Crisfield Seafood, uses to fry shrimp, scallops, crab cakes, soft shell crabs and french fries.

A few lines down, he spotted the culprit. Trans fats: 2 grams per serving.

"Is that a lot?" Mancuso asked yesterday while sitting at the counter in the 61-year-old restaurant in downtown Silver Spring. "Two grams -- is that low enough for them not to care?"

One day after Montgomery County became the first county in the nation to ban trans fats from any place licensed to prepare or sell food, restaurant owners had plenty of questions. Some had no idea whether any ingredients they use contain trans fat. Others wondered how the law would be enforced. Would the health inspector suddenly be sniffing out margarine?

Some residents also were trying to figure out how far the ban will reach. Those home-baked cookies at the farmers market? (Yes.) The snack bar at the neighborhood swimming pool? (Maybe, depending on whether it sells food made there.) The pie with the fatty, flaky crust you were planning for the next church potluck? (That one's still being worked out.)

"This just passed, and we haven't looked at some of these enforcement aspects yet," said Ulder J. Tillman, Montgomery's public health officer.

The ban, similar to those passed recently in New York City and Philadelphia, forbids artificial trans fats found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, baked goods, crackers, some fried foods and anything made with partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats, along with saturated fat and cholesterol, are blamed for raising "bad cholesterol" that can lead to heart disease.

The Montgomery ban takes effect in January for restaurants and other establishments serving food, and in January 2009 for those offering baked goods, other than prepackaged food made outside the county. It covers about 2,500 establishments that have a county license to prepare or sell food, including restaurants, coffee shops, supermarket delis and bakeries, hospitals, private clubs, schools, camps and caterers. The ban does not affect prepackaged food on store shelves.

Violations can result in a fine of $50 to $75, and a three-day license suspension for repeat offenders. Eatery managers will receive training in how to meet the new standards, Tillman said, and county inspectors will be trained to scrutinize menus, recipes and ingredient labels during routine health inspections.

"Unfortunately, trans fats aren't something you can see, smell or taste," Tillman said.

Several restaurant owners said the ban sounded healthful for their customers without creating major problems for their own cooking. They said they'll simply switch to frying in oils free of trans fats. It might be more expensive, they said, but most said they don't think it will affect taste. Bakers, however, may have a harder time, as they said they depend on shortening for flaky crusts and margarine for shapely cookies.

One Tex-Mex restaurant owner privately asked what was the point of having to keep his restaurant trans-fat-free if his overweight customers have plenty of other opportunities to eat unhealthful, fattening foods. How much good does it do to ban trans fats, he asked, when a diner wolfs down an entire basket of high-calorie tortilla chips with queso?

Margie Denchfield figures she'll have to switch from margarine to butter in most of the tea breads and cookies she has sold for 24 years at the Montgomery Farm Women's Cooperative Market in downtown Bethesda. That will mean experimenting with decades-old recipes she inherited from her mother and grandmother. And with butter about three times the cost of margarine, Denchfield said, she wonders how her prices will be affected and whether her margarine-free cookie batter will end up runny.

"I don't know how you make a pie crust without some kind of fat or some kind of vegetable shortening or lard, which people didn't use because it was animal fat," Denchfield said. "But now they're saying trans fat is just as bad as animal fat."

Denchfield, a nurse for 30 years, said she thinks people need to be more aware of the dangers of trans fat. Still, she said, using all butter won't help the overall fat content.

Raymond Denchfield, an overnight mail sorter for the U.S. Postal Service who helps his wife in the baked good business, recommended her pumpkin tea bread.

"You slice it and put a dab of cream cheese on it, and it's out of this world," he said. "You can get that fat-free cream cheese," he added, "but I like the good stuff."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company