Trans-fat ban has bakery worried

The Baltimore Sun

Flour and worry were in the air one recent morning at Hoehn's Bakery in East Baltimore as Louis Sahlender and Sharon Hoehn Hooper prepared sheets of raspberry tarts for the oven.

Like most of the goods produced by the small bakery at Conkling and Banks streets, the recipe for the tarts had been handed down from prior generations. Hooper and Sahlender, who are cousins, learned the baking craft from Hooper's father, Frederick J. Hoehn. Hoehn, in turn, had been taught by his father, William, a native of Germany who installed the bakery's oven in 1927.

But thanks to legislation passed by the Baltimore City Council last month, the raspberry tart and virtually all of the bakery's products would be banned in Baltimore.

The dough for these tarts, as well as the dough for its danish and even its fabled peach cake, uses shortening that contains trans fat.

Trans fat first appeared in the United States in 1911. Nearly a century later, the substance has come under fire from all directions, including a vote by the City Council to ban the sale of prepared foods that contain trans fat. Trans fat increases low-density lipoprotein, the so-called bad cholesterol, and decreases HDL, the good cholesterol. The ban is set to go into effect in the fall of 2009.

Changing the bakery's recipes to comply with the law presents problems on two fronts, Hooper said. First, she said, it would break tradition. "These are recipes I got from my father, and he got from his father," Hooper said. "Some people have been eating these baked goods for 50 years. They don't want the goods to change."

Secondly, she is skeptical of the notion that substitute ingredients, such as shortening free of trans fat, can deliver the same quality of baked goods.

"With restaurants, the effect of the law is different," she said. "Most of them don't bake their own goods. So all they have to do to comply with the law is change the oil in their fryer."

But baking, she reminds us, is chemistry. And when you change the ingredients, especially the fat, you change the product.

To back up her argument, she points to Philadelphia. There, a parade of neighborhood bakers told city officials that their cannoli, their chrusciki (Polish bow-tie cookies) and other traditional ethnic goods could not be replicated without using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and shortenings that have trans fat. Some of the bakers reportedly brought examples of failed goods, baked with trans-fat-free ingredients, to a City Council meeting.

Last fall, following the lead of Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, the city of Philadelphia exempted mom-and-pop bakeries from the city's relatively new trans-fat ban.

Hooper thinks that is what should happen in Baltimore. Small bakeries, with one or maybe two locations, should be allowed to keep using their traditional recipes. The bakeries, she said, should let the customers know if the goods contain trans fats.

"I am upright about telling people what is in my products," she said. "I know I am not selling health food here. But I have lost no business, as far as I know, over trans fat. What my customers tell me is that they don't want to see the recipes change."

I asked Hooper if she considered using butter to substitute for the trans-fat-laden shortening. When you do that, she said, you are trading one set of drawbacks for another. Butter makes nice dough but it can't be used in every baked good. Moreover, it has as many calories as shortening and is about four times as expensive as shortening, she said.

Butter also has saturated fats and saturated fats are bad for your heart, although not as bad, health authorities say, as trans fats.

After visiting Hoehn's Bakery, I called a couple of the small bakeries in Philadelphia.

Workers there told me that when they had substituted ingredients that were free of trans fat, the results were not pretty.

"It was a mess," said Zach Andre a manager at Isgro Pasticceria, a South Philadelphia bakery with the motto "Times change, tradition remains." The trans-fat-free cannoli had a "bad aftertaste," Andre said.

But now, he said, the old recipe is back and "things are back to normal."

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

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