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Bakers: Proposed trans fat ban could tie hands

Cookies such as these from Quality Bakery in Fargo would be affected by a trans fat ban. Butter could be used in the baking process, but would alter the texture or taste because butter contains 20 percent water. (Dave Wallis / Forum News Service)

FARGO — One ingredient explained why a customer was getting terrible homemade treats following the same recipe that Karen Fabre Wills uses to make her popular dessert, grandma’s rolled Christmas butter cookies.

“Instead of using butter, they used margarine, and it will wreck the entire cookie,” she said.

Because of Wills’ insistence that her bakery, K’s on South University Drive in Fargo, only bake the old-fashioned way, she said her business will largely be unaffected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision last month to pursue a ban on trans fats.

Pete Fendt, the owner of Quality Bakery in Fargo, said it wouldn’t put him out of business. But the FDA’s proposal could mean big changes for some of his products, including cake icing, doughnuts and pie crusts.

The bakery faced a short-lived customer “revolt” in the 1980s, he said, when he tried to respond to health warnings at the time and cut back on butter and lard in his baking. Instead, Fendt said he tweaked recipes to include lower-fat alternatives — some of which, including certain shortenings and margarine, could now be on the chopping block because they contain trans fats.

“We got more angry calls from people because our product changed so much,” he said.

Fendt responded by reverting back to his original recipes. But he said if the FDA gets its way, he might not have that option this time.

“If I have a choice between two different products that I put in there, I’m going to give what my customers want so they have a good product that they like to take home and eat,” he said. “It doesn’t do my business any good if the customers demand something and I can’t provide it for them.”

Man-made risk

Trans fats exist naturally, and small amounts can be found in beef, lamb and full-fat dairy products. But the partially hydrogenated oils now being targeted by the FDA are different, according to Lindsay Vettleson, a licensed registered dietitian at IMA Healthcare in Fargo.

“They’re just horrible, horrible fats, and they’re man-made,” she said.

Artificial trans fats were invented in 1901 by a German chemist who found that adding hydrogen to cooking oil turned the liquid into a solid, such as margarine or shortening.

Its low cost and ability to improve a food’s shelf life, texture and flavor made it a popular substitute for butter or lard. For decades, scientists believed it was a safer, healthier alternative than the natural products, which can contain more saturated fat and a higher fat content overall.

But there’s no disagreement now that the initial thinking was wrong, Vettleson said. The artery-clogging trans fats offer no health benefits, she said, and increase the risk of serious cardiovascular problems because they raise the level of bad cholesterol and total cholesterol while decreasing good HDL cholesterol.

The FDA estimates cutting the use of trans fat in America could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.

Heavy consumption of trans fat is unhealthy, Fendt said. But the things he makes that contain trans fats are meant to be an occasional treat, he said, and not a regular meal.

Moving away from these shortenings and margarines could have other unintended consequences, he said. When a food is fried, Fendt said, it absorbs some of the fat it’s cooked in and can become greasy.

Shortening companies responded to that issue by developing products that didn’t absorb into the food as much. But those newer products often contain the artificial fats that could be banned, he said, meaning that moving away from the shortening he uses for his doughnuts now could result in greasier food with more saturated fat.

“People are developing this illusion that it’s a healthier product, and the only thing that’s healthier is that it’s reduced in trans fat,” he said.

Fendt has a point, Vettleson said, but trans fats are “much worse” than natural or saturated fats. While she normally gives patients simple advice about their diet —everything in moderation — she said that’s not good enough for the artificial fat that’s become a bigger concern as fast food and processed foods grew in popularity.

“You’ve got to think with these trans fats, are they a natural part of what we’re supposed to be eating? No, not at all,” Vettleson said. “I always think we should be eating more whole, natural foods, and that’s not at all what trans fats are.”

Not a food fad

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers found each adult in the country ate an average of 4.6 grams of artificial trans fats in 2003, but consumed an average of just 1.3 grams per day in 2006, pointing to a growing awareness of the health risks.

Local and state officials also have heeded the warnings, with several cities and counties banning the artificial fats from restaurants since New York became the country’s first large city to do so in 2007.

Even without a federal ban, many food manufacturers and restaurants have switched to ingredients that don’t contain trans fats or significantly reduced their use.

Still, Vettleson said it’s important to pay attention to the foods we eat to make sure they’re actually free of the substance. Federal labeling requirements allow a product to claim to have zero grams of trans fat per serving, even if has 0.5 grams or less per serving.

“That’s why I tell people you can’t just look at the label, and you need to look at the ingredient list to make sure you’re staying away from foods with partially hydrogenated oils,” she said.

A full FDA ban would most affect Quality Bakery’s cakes, Fendt said, because the trans fat-free alternative for the cake icing he now uses simply falls off the cake on a warm summer day.

Still, Fendt said he’s been paying attention to the national debate over trans fats for several years because the baking industry has known a federal ban was possible.

“The writing’s been on the wall,” he said.

He also wouldn’t be able to rely on locally grown ingredients, such as soybeans, which are now used to make many of the shortenings in his baking.

Even though she doesn’t use them at K’s, Wills said trans fats may just be the latest scapegoat of America’s unhealthy eating habits overall.

“If you do things in moderation and you treat yourself to something without a lot of preservatives and that sort of thing, I think you’ll be just fine,” she said. “I think what’s killing our society, and will continue to do that, is people that eat fast food on a daily basis and all the preservatives and the fat that’s in those.”

Before the FDA can officially determine that trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe” in foods – technical jargon that effectively amounts to a ban on the fat – it must complete a required 60-day comment period to gather opinions from food manufacturers, health experts and the public.

That comment period is scheduled to end Jan. 7. Even after that deadline, a ban likely wouldn’t be immediate – the FDA’s ruling in 2003 that required trans fats to be labeled on foods didn’t go into effect until 2006, for example.

The push to ban trans fats is no fad, Vettleson said, and is based on what’s happened since it became a common part of the food supply.

“I’ve seen the consequences of how bad they can be in our diet,” she said. “I think by eliminating these fats, it’s going to be great for our health. I just hope that we can get rid of them and never see them again, and I hope that will benefit us in the long run.”

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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