Joe Mullineaux can mess with the menu all he wants at the University of Maryland at College Park, but he knows not to leave out the cake. It's one of the biggest sellers, filled with sugary goodness and, until recently, trans fats.
The baker who mass-produces the cake decided in the last few months that he preferred a new recipe that didn't contain any trans fats, created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil -- a process that increases the shelf life of food containing the fats. Mullineaux, associate director for dining services, didn't object, and thus far, neither have students.
Maryland, along with a host of colleges, is following New York City and other municipalities in targeting trans fats, which have been shown to raise levels of "bad cholesterol." They are found in deep-fried items and in oils used to prepare such popular dining hall items as hamburgers and sandwiches. The Food and Drug Administration last year began demanding that food products show trans fats content on nutritional labels.
"We wanted to be with the curve, because we saw it was a coming thing that students wanted," Mullineaux said.
Some of higher education's main food distributors have already outlawed products that contain trans fats or are planning to take action. Aramark is converting to a zero-grams trans fat fryer oil at all its 385 college dining locations by the end of March, and some of the company's client colleges already have made the switch.
Sodexho's higher education division announced more than a year ago that it was converting to zero-grams trans fat oil at its more than 900 colleges. Its plan first focused on eliminating cooking oil that contains trans fats and now has expanded to additional items, said Tara Baten, a company spokeswoman.
Jodi Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Association of College and University Food Services, said among the group's constituents, the buzz last year was about organic and local product purchases. This year, it's about bans on trans fats.
"It's just starting, but it's definitely a trend," Smith said. "There's a high level of consciousness about health issues."
Maryland is aiming to rid its food products of trans fats by mid-February, Mullineaux said. Manufacturers have already come up with alternatives in items such as French fries, but he said the biggest hurdle is bakery items, which largely still contain the fats.
Mullineaux estimates that it will cost the university $8,000 to make the switch from the oils with trans fats to those without, because the latter are more expensive. Students' board rates at Maryland are rising next year already, he said, but the price of food won't rise.
At Virginia Tech, dining services is pulling trans fats from items in phases. All deep fryer oils and butter flavor oils used for grilling and popular items such as garlic mashed potatoes that contained trans fats are gone, said Katie Gehrt, a spokeswoman in the student programs department. Salad dressings are the next target. The eventual goal is for all food served in dining centers to be without a trace of trans fats.
"We had received student feedback asking when we were going to do this," Gehrt said. "We started researching in the fall how we could do it without being too disruptive. Some students are very excited; others just have no idea – they don't care unless the food tastes differently.”
J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group that represents restaurants and food companies and accepts funding from companies in those industries, said he is concerned that colleges are reacting to what he calls "a state of hype and panic" about products that have been used for decades.
Wilson doesn't dispute the health concerns raised by trans fats, nor does he have a problem with dining halls voluntarily making changes to provide healthier options, but he said colleges shouldn't force food providers to take out foods containing the fats, nor should they remove student choice.
"There are certainly a lot of college students who say, 'I want French fries every once in awhile that taste good.' There's nothing wrong with that," Wilson said. "The students know -- they are in college -- what they are eating, and I guarantee you there is a salad bar within range."
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, said there is no reason for colleges to continue serving products with trans fats -- particularly because the cost implications of changing over should be minimal.
"Trans fats are unnatural, unnecessary and not good for [one's] health," she said in an email. "College dining halls might as well start using unhydrogenated oils now. It's only a matter of time before hydrogenated oils disappear from the market."