By PAT CARROLL

Of The Patriot-News

Hoping for a healthy holiday?

Chefs and nutritionists have some tips for avoiding trans fatty acids — the new Dr. Evil in the continuing melodrama called “Eating in America.”

At the grocery store, put down that packaged strudel with the sell-by date some time in 2008. Make it yourself.

And in a restaurant, ask what’s going on in the kitchen.

“The general public has a right to know what they’re consuming, and the environment they’re consuming it in,” said Johnathan Fertal, executive chef at Stock’s on 2nd. “You absolutely have a right to say, ‘Do you use trans fats or any trans-fat product in your operation?'”

In New York City, the government is asking just that question. Starting in July, the Board of Health will effectively prohibit use of trans fats in restaurants.

In 2003, Denmark became the first European country to ban trans fat, limiting it to no more than 2 percent of total fat content.

The European Food Safety Authority is producing a scientific opinion on trans fat, and Britain might consider a labeling requirement.

According to Reuters, McDonald’s has promised to cut the level of trans fat at its 6,300 European locations to 2 percent by mid-2008. It would be the first chain in Europe to cut the artery-clogging fats.

What if health officials in the Harrisburg area considered a ban? Fertal estimates 30 percent to 35 percent of restaurants in this area would be affected.

The biggest reason for using trans fats: They’re cheap.

For Stock’s, Fertal uses an olive and canola oil combination that runs about 12 cents a serving. A kitchen using a trans fat product would pay about 2 cents a serving.

“It doesn’t sound like much money,” he said, “but if you’re doing 1,000 covers a day …”

For restaurateurs, trans fats have other advantages. They’re easy to work with, they have a higher smoking point and they take flavors well.

But they have a major downside.

Researchers at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that eating trans fats promotes the big-bellied, apple body shape that increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Previous research has shown that trans fats pose a higher risk of heart disease than saturated fats because they not only raise cholesterol levels, but also deplete HDL cholesterol.

That’s the good cholesterol that helps prevent heart disease.

Trans fats are partially hydrogenated fats, a creation of the food industry to extend the shelf life of packaged foods.

“If you’re Mr. Keebler and you make crackers,” said Jennifer Person, head dietitian for the U.S. Navy Standard Menu, “and you knew their shelf life was going to be two weeks, and then your product would have to be pulled and thrown out, you’d want to come up with something that makes your product last for six months.

“When you hydrogenate fat, you make it more shelf-stable. But now it is filled with all kinds of bad fats that were made in the lab and react negatively in your body.”

Person, who works out of Navy Family Support in Mechanicsburg, has one answer for people wondering what to do about baked goods.

Make them from scratch.

“As we get more technologically advanced, and we’re too busy running around everywhere, nobody wants to cook,” she said. “That’s where we run into trouble. With our Navy Standard Menu, we’ve got a lot of desserts made from scratch.

“Things that are homemade could be healthier if the right ingredients are used.”

Person’s strategy for the grocery store is to shop the perimeter.

“Your trans fats are going to come from the center aisles — cookies, cakes, pastries, pies, candy bars, anything that doesn’t need to be refrigerated.”

When you look at labels, the buzzwords are partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and palm kernel oil.

“To me, trans fats are like eating a Styrofoam cup,” Fertal said. “It’s not biodegradable. It’s going to take your body forever to process it.”

PAT CARROLL : 255-8149 or pcarroll@patriot-news.com

INFOBOX:

FAT CHANCES?

At his year-end news conference, Gov. Ed Rendell said he wasn’t sure about trans fats or banning them.

“I think if banning trans fats turns out to be good, I don’t know whether there’s an appetite,” he said. “That would have to be done by legislative change. I don’t know if there’s an appetite to do that on a statewide basis.”

Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed said the city can’t consider such a ban because, due to the current budget crisis, the health officer has been laid off.

“We would have no ability to enforce such a ban, as a result,” Reed said.

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Bonjour!

In culinary school and getting ready to trade the writing life for the cooking life. Or not. Might do both. At the moment I'm a feature writer for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. My name is Pat Carroll.

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