If Charlie DeBaufre Jr. could not taste the trans fat missing from his Berger Cookies, chances are his customers have not noticed the change, either.
DeBaufre’s South Baltimore bakery has been making its iconic cookies without trans fat since this summer. At least, that’s when he found out the fudge used in the thick layer of chocolate smeared atop the wafer cookies no longer contained the ingredient being banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next year.
“Unbeknownst to me, the manufacturer did away with the trans fat, so we were under the impression we still contained trans fat,” DeBaufre said. A chance call to his supplier proved otherwise. “So when I said, ‘We’ve got to make this change. What have you got?’ He said, ‘We’ve got what you’re using. It’s trans-fat free.’ So we have zero grams of trans fat in our cookie and have had since July or August.”
Trans fats are unsaturated fats infused with hydrogen, a process that causes ingredients like vegetable oil to solidify at room temperature, improving the shelf life and flavor of certain foods. Consuming trans fats increases “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and depletes “good” cholesterol (HDL), increasing the risk of heart disease. The FDA first considered a ban on artificial trans fats in 2013, and in 2015 the agency ordered food manufacturers to phase out the substance by June 2018.
In Berger Cookies, trans fat was previously found in the margarine used for the cookie base and in the chocolate fudge coating. The fats are commonly listed on food labels as partially hydrogenated oils.
Baltimore’s Berger Cookie lovers have erupted at the thought of altering their beloved treat to remove trans fat, taking to social media to lament the change they assumed was forthcoming and talking of stockpiling cookies before the recipe changes. But it’s already too late.
When the FDA first announced its plans to prohibit the ingredient in 2013, DeBaufre said, his ingredient suppliers hurried to create subpar replacements free of trans fats. The trans fat-free substitutes have improved during the last few years.
The change in the fudge was so subtle he didn’t notice when his manufacturers stopped using trans fats earlier this year. He was not aware the fudge did not contain trans fat until after a customer called this summer to complain about his cookies, saying she would never eat them again without trans fat. He assured her the recipe had not changed.
“I actually thought there was trans fat in them,” DeBaufre said.
The call got him thinking about the forthcoming ban, and he wanted to start tinkering with new recipes during the slower summer months. He called one of his suppliers in July to ask about his options for ingredients free of trans fats.
“He said, ‘They made the switch months ago... they never even told us,’ ” DeBaufre said.
Representatives from DeBaufre’s ingredient suppliers, George R. Ruhl & Son Inc. and Lentz Milling Co., and his main fudge manufacturer, Corbion (formerly Caravan Ingredients) could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
The bakery has since started using trans fat-free margarine with a soy base for its cookies.
“I was going to do a big rollout, but they kind of took that away from me,” DeBaufre said. “It’s just as well.”
While there’s no discernible difference in the “new” cookie’s taste and texture, DeBaufre said his only complaint is that the fudge contains more calories. While his fudge manufacturer did away with trans fat, they added sweeteners, raising the calorie count. (With trans fat, each cookie contained 140 calories; DeBaufre is waiting for a nutritionist to determine the higher calorie count for the trans fat-free recipe.)
The current Berger Cookie boxes still indicate the cookies have 1 gram of trans fat per serving. DeBaufre said he has about 15,000 boxes left from a previous packaging order that he continues to use. He expects those boxes will last through about January before the next order of packages rolls out containing the updated ingredients.
The Baltimore Sun inquired with the FDA regarding possible repercussions for DeBaufre’s delay in updating nutrition labels. A spokeswoman declined to discuss the matter on the record.
The new recipe has trace amounts of trans fats — less than 0.5 grams — so the new label will read “0 grams,” according to FDA regulations.
Ditching trans fat is the first major ingredient change DeBaufre can recall since his father and uncles traded butter for margarine in the recipe when he was about 8 years old.
When the ban was announced several years ago, some customers suggested reverting to the original recipe German immigrants used to make Berger Cookies in the 1800s, before hydrogenated oils were widely used. But DeBaufre said that’s not possible.
“I don’t think there’s anybody around that actually knows the original recipe,” DeBaufre said. “I mean, we’re going back to where you made your own chocolate. Nobody knows that.”
The Berger family established its Baltimore bakery in 1835 and owned the company for two generations before selling to the Russell family. DeBaufre’s father and uncles bought it from the Russells, and his sons, Charles DeBaufre III and Corey DeBaufre, will assume ownership of the company next.
The new recipe has not kept customers from buying Berger Cookies at retailers such as Eddie’s of Roland Park on Charles Street. Dave Jachelski, store’s assistant manager, said he has seen no change in Berger Cookie sales since trans fat was removed earlier this year.
“I think the name sells the cookie,” he said. ”We sell a good bit of them, and nobody’s every said, ‘Wow, the cookie’s changed.’ They love that chocolate icing.”
James Mott, a 23-year-old Takoma Park resident, said he has not detected a difference in taste since the recipe change. The first Berger Cookie Mott could recall eating was at an Orioles game with his father at age 8. Now, he said, he makes weekly trips to Baltimore to buy the cookies.
“If you gave someone a blind taste test between a Berger Cookie with trans fat and a Berger Cookie without it … I would say 99 out of 100 people would not be able to tell any sort of difference between the two,” he said.
He said he was pleased to hear that trans fat had been eliminated from the cookies.
“Even if these are like small nudges from the government to get people away from more unhealthy foods, or at least making the unhealthy foods a little bit healthier, I think that’s really good,” Mott said. “I’ll probably feel less guilty about eating them.”
Although the recipe has changed, DeBaufre said no number of tweaks will make the sweets healthy.
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“I have yet to see a healthy cookie,” he said. “Nobody eats a cookie and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to eat healthy, I’m having cookies.’ It’s an indulgence.”