Saturday, August 25, 2007

Yes, Deep-Fried Oreos, but Not in Trans Fats

August 21, 2007
Indianapolis Journal
Yes, Deep-Fried Oreos, but Not in Trans Fats

INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 17 — The deep-fried Combo Plate may be a little more healthful this year at the Great Indiana State Fair. So say the fair’s leaders, who, taking a step rarely seen in the realm of corn dogs and fried pickles, have banned oils with trans fats from all the fryers that line the grounds here.

The change is only the latest in a string of bans on artificial trans fats. Tied to health problems including heart disease, they have been banished by national restaurant chains, snack brands and New York City, which forbids restaurants to use them in food preparation.

But this is perhaps the most unlikely locale yet: the nation’s classic summer fair, long seen as one final safe haven from the health police.

Along the steamy thoroughfare here, where only sensitive palates can distinguish among the various cuts of potato (curly fries, ribbon fries and the old standby, French), fairgoers seemed pleased with the switch. The food tasted the same, they said happily. And if this meant they could indulge without guilt or have one more helping, so much the better.

“This is a slice of heaven,” said Ryan Howell, 31, as he cradled his Combo Plate, which, for the record, consists of one battered Snickers bar, two battered Oreos and a battered Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup — all deep-fried in oil that is trans-fat free, thank goodness.

“This was an issue we wanted to tackle,” said Cindy Hoye, executive director of the fair, which spent the winter months testing various oils and, despite the fears of some concessionaires about possible changes to taste or costs or tradition, concluded that trans-fat-free oils created what Ms. Hoye called a better product.

National fair officials say Indiana and at least one other fair, the Western Washington, have led the way on a health issue that is only now creating a buzz in the fair industry. During a national convention of fair officials in Las Vegas this November, Indiana representatives are to offer a workshop, “Going Trans-Fat Free,” which, the convention program promises, will answer the question “What is all the craze about?”

Some concessionaires here said trans-fat-free oils seemed to leave “less of a varnish buildup” on their French fry baskets and corn dog equipment. But Chris Coffman, who helps his brother, Sam, operate a stand that sells the fried-dough snack called elephant ears, was none too pleased with the new ways.

The oil they are now using has to be changed more often, Mr. Coffman said (although some other concessionaires said their new oils in fact required less changing). And he worried, briefly, that the ban might also apply to the margarine that the Coffmans use to make cinnamon sugar stick to their doughy confections; it does not, fair officials ruled.

And that, Mr. Coffman said, is the silly part of the whole ban: it will barely skim the surface of fair food’s inherently — and proudly — unhealthful nature, he said.

“It’s craziness,” said Mr. Coffman, 45, who says he eats fair food every day but who appears surprisingly trim. “They’re using this for a marketing ploy. It’s a way to convince people that they can eat more — that somehow all of this is safe now and you can eat all you want — when we all know that’s not true.”

The calorie count? The state fair does not require vendors to provide those numbers, and no one here would venture any guesses. But figures from the Web site suggest that a Combo Plate, for instance, comes to well over 700 calories. That is more than a third of the entire daily caloric intake recommended by the Department of Agriculture for a 30-year-old woman who is 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds and who exercises less than 30 minutes a day.

Ms. Hoye, the fair’s executive director, pointed out some healthful (if, judging from the customer lines, less popular) offerings of salads and tomato juice here. But she was quick to acknowledge that trans-fat-free oils will not turn standard state fair cuisine into health food.

“When you are having fair food, you are having fun,” she said. “You’re probably still going to use some calories out here. Look, we can’t control what goes in an Oreo, but we can say what goes in our fryers out here.”

Jeremy Orme, who runs Fried Creations, the home of the Combo Plate, introduced a new item at this year’s fair: deep-fried Pepsi. He rolls out his Pepsi-based dough, dips it in a batter made with Pepsi and deep-fries it for 90 seconds. His oil, made of soybeans, is trans-fat free as required, and on the front of his booth he has posted a local newspaper’s account about the fair’s trans-fat ban.

But inside the booth, where the air is dense with oil, workers chuckle about the whole concept. And Mr. Orme himself rarely eats what he cooks here.

“I stay away from fried foods,” he said.

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