Nanny State

Who Needs Trans Fat?


In the March issue of The Atlantic, food writer Corby Kummer investigates how easy it will be for restaurants and bakeries to comply with New York's trans fat ban. (The full text is available only to subscribers.) Kummer, whose analysis is especially interesting because he is married to Boston's health commissioner and sympathetic to the rationale for the ban, punctures the pretense that restaurants and food manufacturers use trans fats for no good reason (out of sheer perversity, to judge from the rhetoric of some activists and public health officials). In addition to the advantages of lower cost and longer shelf life, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil provides flavor and texture that can be hard to replicate without going back to animal fat. "I realized that saying trans fats are 'totally replaceable,' as [New York City Health Commissioner Thomas] Frieden repeatedly does…is easier for a health official than for a product developer," Kummer writes. He notes that big chains have labored long and hard, trying many different combinations of ingredients, to come up with acceptable replacements for trans fat. He worries that mom-and-pop bakeries, lacking the resources of Au Bon Pain, will "never be able to figure all that out." Donuts, according to Kummer, are a special challenge:

I  saw why lard and shortening have always been best for deep frying….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 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.

Is the difference worth a slight increase in heart disease risk? A truly tolerant society would leave that decision to individual consumers. But we're talking about New York, which does not allow smoking among consenting adults.