Food March 2007

Fat City

Banning trans fats probably makes sense from a public-health standpoint—but will the doughnut survive?

But they’re not. Midttun and John gave the example of their blueberry muffins, which used to be the highest in trans fats, as a challenge they had finally met. They did it by using a new fat and adding several other ingredients to mask its taste and still get the same mouthfeel. The ingredients, they told me, included oat bran, ground golden flaxseed, soy protein, and emulsifiers. Individual bakers, I thought, were sunk: They’d never be able to figure all that out, even with frequent calls to a city help line.

And the substitute fats have problems of their own. Earth Balance, a blend that Au Bon Pain uses, includes some palm-fruit oil, which is 50 percent saturated. Very highly saturated tropical oils, like coconut, were the target of a widely publicized 1994 exposé of movie popcorn by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Now, the current thinking runs, saturated fats are not quite as bad for you as trans fats—but they’re still bad, and the American Heart Association has expressed concern about using them as a substitute for trans fats.

Dunkin’ Donuts, another national chain based in the Boston area, says that it has tried twenty-two different fats in sixty-seven tests, hoping to get the same texture its doughnuts now have. Recognizing the difficulty posed by doughnuts and other fried doughs, New York modified its regulation to give doughnut makers eighteen months to come up with suitable alternatives. If Dunkin’ has found a good substitute, it isn’t saying.

Doughnut Plant, a cult fry shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is a poster child for the ban: It proudly announces that it fries only in corn oil (see “Doughnut Heaven,” page 122). Mark Isreal, the eccentric, garrulous owner, certainly doesn’t compromise on quality or expertise with his doughnuts. When I went to see him, I found myself following Frieden’s example: He told me that at a health-department staff gathering after the ban was passed, he “couldn’t stop eating” Isreal’s doughnuts.

But when I tried similar flavors at Dunkin’ Donuts, I saw why lard and solid shortening have always been best for deep frying (Dunkin’ has never used lard): The resolidified fat gives the interior a texture that oil simply cannot. Yeast-raised doughnuts are less problematic, because they should remain airy. But in a cake doughnut, the right texture is as unmistakable as the firm crumble of a butter cake—which, of course, requires a fat that solidifies at room temperature. A good cake doughnut has the substance of pound cake. It won’t get that from corn or canola oil.

It’s a confusing picture. Looking into trans fats got me hooked on an extremely fatty food I hadn’t eaten since childhood (positively unpatriotic, as John T. Edge’s monograph Donuts: An American Passion engagingly makes clear). Frieden readily admits that banning trans fats won’t help reduce obesity. Posting calorie counts where you pay for your food—a less-noticed regulation he got passed at the same time as the trans-fat ban—might help. Or it might just make people eat more doughnuts: A Dunkin’ Donuts glazed yeast doughnut has 180 calories, a glazed cake doughnut has 350, a reduced-fat blueberry muffin has 400, and a corn muffin has 510. Getting people to eat less fat and more fresh and unprocessed food—the real path to health—can’t be done by any regulation yet proposed by the “food police.”

Still, it does seem like a good idea to remove artificial substances from the food supply, especially if trans fats result in thousands of needless deaths a year. And the international headlines the initiative produced will most likely make people think more about the healthfulness of the food they eat, and restaurateurs about what they put into their food, all for a relatively modest expenditure on the city’s part. As my spouse points out, regulations get headlines; education programs on the dangers of saturated fats and how to find, buy, and cook better food—programs in which his department invests heavily—get yawns. I’ll be watching follow-up studies to see whether the cure for trans fats, which in many cases is to replace them with highly saturated fats, is worse than the disease.

And when the beleaguered cooks at Dunkin’ Donuts finally solve the riddle of removing trans fats, as New York City says they must by July of next year, I’ll be eager to learn how they did it. At the risk of revealing a rival’s trade secret, may I suggest oat bran and golden flaxseed?

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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