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Ready Or Not, Local Food Shops Brace For FDA's Trans Fats Purge

The Food and Drug Administration has a plan in the works that may affect your appetite. It wants to ban partially hydrogenated oils -- the major source of artificial trans fats in the U. S. food supply.

How will that impact St. Louis area bakeries, donut shops and grocery stores?

Like many mom-and-pop donut shops in St. Louis, the Donut Stop in Lemay fries with partially hydrogenated shortening – good for glaze retention, shelf life, and mouth feel.

“I’m from the old school,” said owner Ken Klepzig on a cold recent morning. “[When] we had soybeans back years ago, we didn’t even know what cholesterol was when I was kid.”

Klepzig cooks with Stratas Super Fry C Vegatable Shortening, a mix of soybean and cottonseed oil, which averages 4.5 grams of trans fatty acids per serving. Klepzig isn’t sure how his donuts will change once the ban takes effect.

“Until we clean our fryer completely out and use zero trans fat shortening, there’s no way of knowing for sure what it’s going to be like,” he said. “They say it changes the flavor. Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know.”

Use of partially hydrogenated oils has declined dramatically in the U.S. ever since the FDA required they be labeled on nutrition facts in 2006.

The agency estimates the average amount consumed by Americans has dropped by more than 70 percent from 2003 to 2012, from about 4.6 grams per day to about 1 gram per day.  

In November, the FDA issued a preliminary report that determined PHOs as no longer “generally recognized as safe.” If its preliminary finding is finalized, the partially hydrogenated oils will be regarded as food additives that cannot be used in food without approval. In December, the FDA extended the comment period in which U.S. businesses can outline the cost and time it might take to replace the PHOs. Many large companies, like KrispyKreme and Dunkin’ Donuts, have already switched, said Dennis Keefe, the FDA’s Director of Food Additive Safety.

“Based on our monitoring of the food supply, it’s very clear to us that companies have already reformulated products and that there are alternative ingredients with less trans fats now available,” Keefe said.

It’s hard to know how many St. Louis businesses would still be affected by the ban. Dozens of St. Louis donut shops, bakeries and supermarkets declined to be interviewed for this story.

The local supermarket chain Schnuck’s, for instance, was unable to say whether its doughnuts are fried with PHOs, although, a number of other items made for their stores do contain them including some cakes, pastries, and canned icing. A spokesperson for the supermarket says it is in the process of reformulating its recipes and products in anticipation of the inevitable trans fat ban.

In addition, St. Louis is home to the company Bunge, one of the world’s leading industrial fat, branded margarine and oil manufacturers. A representative also declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement wrote:

“As a leading supplier of ingredients to food manufacturers, restaurants and bakeries, Bunge offers a broad portfolio of trans [fat] free products, some made from patented processes that have helped our customers reduce the amount of trans in food products by more than 70 percent over the last decade.

"Bunge is in the process of evaluating the FDA’s preliminary determination and will work with our trade associations to provide [the] FDA with additional information on the best approach to eliminate artificial trans.”

Other businesses in St. Louis are ahead of the curve, however. St. Louis Bread Company, known nationally as Panera Bread, once offered a variety of items with trans fats. Nutrition Manager Katie Bengston said Panera food scientists have been working for years to replace them.

“We were able to replace those artificial trans fats with other alternatives,” she said. “Whether it be butter or a blend of unsaturated and saturated oils or just saturated oils without compromise to the taste and quality.”

Bengston said some items were easy to reformulate, while others have been more challenging to get the same results.

“We have a few baked goods that still have artificial trans fats but at minimal levels and were are transitioning a few of those baked goods to remove the partially hydrogenated oils and there’s one other item that’s under reformulation now,” she said.

According to Bengston, Panera expects to have trans fats completely removed from its menu by 2015. When PHOs are eliminated from American diets, the FDA estimates 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 coronary deaths will be prevented each year.