Teaching Sans Trans Fats

In the dining hall and the curriculum, culinary programs are reducing or eliminating the use of oils that can lead to health problems.
December 19, 2007

Over the past year, many colleges have gone the way of New York by banning or severely limiting the use of trans fats, which are shown to raise levels of "bad cholesterol."

Dining halls now serve fries and dessert items that are prepared using what culinary experts agree are healthier kinds of oils. Some of higher education's main food service companies have stopped using products that contain trans fats and are asking distributors to make changes in how they include nutritional information on labels.

But what about when you’re teaching culinary arts and this is a matter of your curriculum, not just your menu? Turns out, those programs are making a move away from the oils, too.

Johnson & Wales University, which has four campuses and 16,000 students, announced this month that it plans to eliminate the use of products containing trans fats in cafeterias, owned and operated hotels and its commercial bakeshop, and all but do away with them in the curriculum by spring 2008.

"There are major implications as it relates to health as far as consuming trans fats," said Karl Guggenmos, university dean of culinary education. "This is something we should address as part of our social responsibility in the food industry."

As part of the initiative, Johnson & Wales is partnering with its oil provider to test new products that are not trans fat based. The tricky issue for many colleges wanting to make the move is finding alternative recipes for baked and processed goods, which typically rely on products that are trans fat based. Guggenmos says the university has developed such alternative recipes for cakes, pie doughs and other desserts.

When presented with the idea of replacing products and retooling recipes, some faculty members in the bakery and pastry program were dubious, Guggenmos said. They use scientific formulas that, when changed even slightly, can ruin a finished product. Manufacturers of products used in dessert items have been slow to come around to non-trans fat items, but Guggenmos said there are enough replacements to allow the program to complete its menu overhaul. These replacement ingredients are primarily palm oil, corn oil and sometimes butter -- and there's a 5 to 10 percent annual cost increase for the university to replace trans fat based items with healthier ingredients in the baking and pastry recipes.

To reflect the changes, Johnson & Wales is updating menus and altering other materials used in the curriculum to include the rationale for switching to trans fat free products.

The only place that trans fats will remain is in certain science courses so that students can recognize the chemical differences between products. No one will eat the foods prepared in the classes, and Guggenmos said he expects to phase out the use of the products once more alternative items are offered on the market.

The same is true at the Culinary Institute of America, where the products, which are typically cheaper than the non-trans fat based ones, are used only for instructional purposes -- for instance in an advanced cake decorating class. (They aren't consumed.)

The institute banned trans fats from the curriculum nearly two years ago, said Stephan Hengst, a spokesman for CIA. That means no deep-fryer oils are served at the five public restaurants serving visitors and local residents, nor at the more than 40 kitchens and bake shops that students patronize. The institute also incorporated into literature it gives to students information about why trans fat based products aren't carried there.

"It's our responsibility to give students all the facts they need," Hengst said. "The students will still understand the principles behind deep frying; it's up to them to make their own decisions."

Therese O'Connor, a senior lecturer in Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, said culinary courses offered in the program have used only butter and plant oils -- which aren't trans fat based -- for years. She said she plans to switch to natural liquid plant oils for deep frying starting next year.

O'Connor, who teaches a course about the qualities of all fats used in the culinary realm, said instructors haven't used trans fats "simply because we have considered them inferior to natural saturated and unsaturated fats."

Still, the issue isn't on the table everywhere. The Art Institutes, which offer more than a dozen culinary programs across the country, don't have an official policy about the use of trans fats in the classroom, according to Jacquelyn P. Muller, an institutes spokeswoman.

And some lament the trend toward banning trans fat based products. 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 earlier this year that 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.


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