The movement to ban artery-clogging trans fats from food has a new venue: cooking schools.
The places that train the people who will someday be feeding the rest of us are cutting back or eliminating artificial trans fats from their classrooms, saying they have a responsibility to teach students how to cook healthy foods.
"It's a very welcome change," said John O'Connell, 19, a sophomore culinary arts student at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, one of the nation's largest cooking schools.
The school has started phasing out trans fats in its restaurants, hotels and dining services on four campuses around the country, and plans to be trans fat-free by the fall semester.
"We have made sure that we do the right thing," said Karl J. Guggenmos, dean of culinary education.
Other cooking schools, such as Le Cordon Bleu Schools North America, with 13 locations, are looking at reducing or eliminating trans fats, said Kirk T. Bachmann of Le Cordon Bleu, which is based in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. The prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, banned trans fats from nearly all its classes and restaurants in 2005.
Artificial trans fats are often found in oils used to deep-fry foods such as french fries and in baked goods. Bakers like to use shortenings with trans fats because cakes stay fresher longer, frosting is easier to use, and they cost less than butter.
Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid cooking oils to harden them. Along with saturated fats, they raise levels of so-called bad cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease.
New York City banned cooking oils with trans fat from all restaurants last year, and several states and cities have debated similar measures. A number of fast-food restaurants chains are making the switch to trans fat-free cooking oils.
At the Culinary Institute of America, trans fat is one of the "hot button" topics, said school spokesman Stephan Hengst.
"Once they get out in the industry, they've got to understand it," he said of students.
The school has about 3,000 students at its main campus and three branches, and boasts such famous alumni as restaurateur Charlie Palmer and best-selling author and chef Anthony Bourdain.
Trans fats are banned at the school, Hengst said, except in advanced cake decorating classes where students work with trans fat-based shortening. But no one eats the cakes once they're decorated; they are thrown away.
At Johnson & Wales, it took months of work to get trans fats out of the school's curriculum. Their textbook has hundreds of recipes and about 50 included trans fats, said Wanda Cropper, who oversees the school's baking and pastry institute.
Eliminating it from some recipes was relatively easy — butter and olive oil are often good substitutes. But baking was different. Getting the right texture, color, smell and taste was tricky, and took a lot of trial and error, Cropper said.
"Baking is a science. You can't just substitute," she said.
Until recently, there were not many good options for trans fat-free baking products, Guggenmos said. The school worked closely with its supplier to find ingredients that worked and to reformulate its recipes as needed.
Guggenmos estimates it will cost about 5 percent more for the trans fat-free ingredients, although that could ease as the market grows for such products.
Robbi Mills, 21, a 2007 graduate of Johnson & Wales who is now a manager at the university-owned Johansson's Bakery in downtown Providence, said trans fats were not an issue when she was in school. The bakery is switching non-trans fats in the coming months.
"I didn't really have any exposure to it when I was in the labs," she said. "I wish I had known more."