If the Food and Drug Administration goes ahead with its proposal to eliminate trans fats from processed food, it could create a sticky situation for Baltimore-area sweets makers, including the company that produces famed Berger cookies.
The FDA will announce a final decision on banning trans fats from restaurants and packaged products on Jan. 7, but manufacturers are already preparing themselves.
The baker of the Berger cookies has tasted the future and found it lacking.
Charles DeBaufre Jr., who owns the bakery that makes the Berger cookie, said he's been experimenting with shortenings that don't have trans fats. He wasn't impressed.
"The only similarity I saw was the initial sight" of the cookie, he said. "After that there's nothing the same."
If the new rules were to go into effect tomorrow, and he had to use one of the existing new formulas, DeBaufre said it would be the end of the Berger cookie.
"If they enacted it right now, I'd have to lock the door," he said.
DeBaufre might not have to rush a recipe, though.
"We're kind of early in the process," Nick Pyle, president of the Independent Bakers Association, a Washington-based trade group, said about the FDA's proposed rules. "But [DeBaufre] should be looking at alternatives, in case the new rules go through. It's something that could happen."
Other than trying out a newly formulated shortening when a manufacturer sends him one, DeBaufre said, he hasn't had time to give the proposed ban much thought. His Cherry Hill factory is running at full capacity to meet the demand for Christmas gifts.
"At this time of year, I don't have time to mess with it." DeBaufre said. "Come January, I'll do more research. I'll talk to my supplier to see if there's something else out there."
Even if the new regulation goes through, the FDA said it will phase out the use of partially hydrogenated oils, or PHOs, over time. A spokeswoman for the FDA said that the agency is mindful of the effects that new regulations might have on small businesses. There is a 60-day public-comment period before the January decision.
"Our intent is not to create an undue burden on these entities," said Shelly L. Burgess of the FDA. "Therefore, we are specifically requesting comment on the costs to small businesses and any special considerations that might be made in order to minimize the burden on small businesses associated with removing PHOs from foods."
And Berger cookie isn't the only Baltimore business that would have to eliminate trans fats from its recipes. They show up in Otterbein's oatmeal raisin cookies and Goetze's Caramel Creams, too.
Pyle expects that oil suppliers will have something ready for DeBaufre if and when the trans fat prohibition goes into effect. "They'll 'formula' around it," Pyle said.
Manufacturers have had to reconfigure recipes before, Pyle said, changing from butter when it became too expensive and eliminating palm oil because of health concerns.
"We cycle back and forth between things," he said, adding that the industry is actually more concerned with trying to comply with the Affordable Care Act than it is about a ban on certain oils.
Trans fats weren't always held in such low esteem, said Angela Ginn, a dietitian and education coordinator with the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology.
"They were thought to be a good thing," she said, "because they enhanced flavor and texture and extended shelf life."
But studies have shown trans fats to be unhealthy.
"It actually lowers our good cholesterol," she said. "It might be tantalizing on the taste buds, but once they get into our arteries, it turns to sludge."
DeBaufre, the baker, said that manufacturers might be rushing things with new formulas of shortening in an effort to be first, and that in time better alternatives could be available. But his future could depend on what they develop.
"We could never produce our own shortening," he said. "It's out of the question."
DeBaufre said he remembers receiving only three comments about the trans fat content in Berger cookies. Two of those comments, DeBaufre said, were indignantly against its being there. The third, though, was from a 90-year-old customer who said he'd stop eating Berger cookies if DeBaufre stopped using trans fat.
"He said it was one of life's pleasures," DeBaufre said. "And that he was a living testament that they weren't bad for you."