updated 1/18/2007 5:39:26 PM ET 2007-01-18T22:39:26

It isn’t mystery meat — it’s more like mystery fat. And the kids in the Plum Borough School District have been eating it and liking it.

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The secret ingredient is a plant-based fat substitute called Z Trim. It’s been in the school’s popular ranch dressing for months, quietly reducing the fat and calories students are getting when they load up their salads and chicken with it.

“It’s really good. Better than my ranch at home,” says 16-year-old Juliann Sheldon, who used the dressing to top off her salad of lettuce, baby spinach, chunks of chicken and croutons.

The Plum Borough district in suburban Pittsburgh is believed to be the first school district in the country to use the fat substitute. School officials say the dressing’s flavor is preserved, even though fat and calories are cut.

“Sometimes getting healthy foods into (students) isn’t always the easiest thing to do, if they know about it,” said Maryann Lazzaro, the district’s food service manager and a registered dietitian.

The district began using the product 10 months ago, but just told the students about the switch Thursday.

“I think it tastes the same as it did before,” said Tina DeLuca, 16.

No safety concerns
Z Trim, which has no fat, is made from the hulls of corn, oats, soy, rice and barley. It was developed by a scientists at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Illinois in the mid-1990s.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that often speaks out on unhealthy food, said it has no safety concerns about Z Trim.

It’s taken several years to get the product into production and on the market. In 1998, FiberGel Technologies of Mundelein, Ill., acquired the license for Z Trim and built a manufacturing plant with plans to market and sell it to both food manufacturers and consumers.

Sold as a gel or powder, it can be used in dressings, dips, sauces, baked goods, processed meats, snack foods, cookies, pies and other foods. Unfortunately, it cannot be fried.

The company believes Z Trim could play a crucial role in fighting the obesity epidemic.

Rick Harris, FiberGel’s vice president for sales and marketing, said Z Trim can be used to replace about 50 percent of the fat — such as oil or lard — in recipes without changing the taste or texture. In Z Trim mayonnaise, for example, there are 2 grams of fat and 25 calories per 1 tablespoon serving, compared with 4.5 grams of fat and 45 calories in a serving of an average light mayonnaise.

“This is a true plant fiber. It’s something people have been eating,” Harris said. “If anyone’s had popcorn, they’ve had Z Trim. That’s basically what it is.”

Many products on the market use a variety of fat substitutes, including olestra. But unlike fat replacers like olestra, a substance used in potato chips that raised concerns about diarrhea and stomach cramping, Z Trim has no side effects, the company said.

Taste matters
Nancy Perrott, a nutritionist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said the best way to get kids to eating healthier is to offer healthy choices and limit unhealthy ones. Though she had never heard of Z Trim, Perrott raised concerns that children would get used to eating the lower-cal school foods with Z Trim and forget that most of those foods outside school have more calories.

“It is the right idea. Whether or not that’s a practical solution, I’m not sure,” Perrott said.

In the Plum Borough school district, Lazzaro had already added some healthy, lower-fat options to the $1.85 lunch for her 1,000 daily customers. But when she started using a low-fat ranch dressing more than a year ago, students didn’t like the taste and stopped eating the veggies, she said.

FiberGel officials contacted her after reading about her efforts to improve school lunches.

Lazzaro and FiberGel experimented with the school’s ranch dressing recipe, trying to mimic the taste of it while using Z Trim. The result was a Z Trim mayonnaise that is used to make ranch dressing and chicken, tuna and egg salads. Lazzaro said the price is comparable to buying low-fat mayo wholesale.

Company officials said now they are talking with Chicago school officials about using Z Trim, as well as discussions with food companies.

For the students at Plum High School, though, what matters most is the taste.

“It tastes the same,” said R.J. Fazio, a 15-year-old sophomore feasting on ravioli and a side salad topped with white globs of ranch dressing. “It doesn’t bother me.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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