When he first started frying up all-natural doughnuts a dozen years ago, Mark Isreal had a tough time getting consumers to bite. After all, who counts calories before grabbing a jelly-filled with their morning cup of joe?
“It doesn’t matter how delicious it is. Some people are so narrow-minded,” said Isreal, owner of the Doughnut Plant in New York.
These days, Isreal supplies everyone from upscale grocery stores to “dive coffee shops” around the city. He’s also got a licensing deal for nine Doughnut Plant stores in Tokyo, where he sells to Starbucks.
And doughnut lovers across the country could soon join him in reaching for a less unhealthy treat — even if they’re not trying — as regulators and retailers pressure food companies to drop artery-clogging trans fats.
Rather than worrying the shift will gobble up their market niche, some natural doughnut makers say they’re happy to see the food industry abandoning ingredients that gave the industrialized doughnut a bad rap.
“It’s nice to have been ahead of the curve,” said Ryan Kellner, owner of the all-organic Mighty-O Donuts in Seattle. “But I think it’s great for society in general that we’re moving towards an alternative.”
“Doughnuts have kind of gone through a renaissance,” Isreal said.
Artificial trans fats, also listed on food labels as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, are under attack from health advocates. Evidence suggests they boost “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Health regulators have taken notice. Last month, New York became the first city in the country to ban all restaurants from using artificial trans fats by mid-2008; similar measures are being considered from Little Rock, Ark., to Los Angeles.
In Franklin County, Ohio, officials even suspended an annual contract to supply the county jail with doughnuts, citing concerns about trans fats.
Some food sellers stopped using trans fats voluntarily after the Food and Drug Administration required food labels to show trans-fat content. That includes coffeehouse giant Starbucks Corp., which recently announced it was halfway through a plan to purge trans fats from its U.S. food menu.
Seattle’s Top Pot Doughnuts, one of Starbucks’ largest doughnut suppliers, switched to a trans-fat-free recipe in November.
“We’d been looking for the last couple of years at moving to a trans-fat-free product,” Top Pot spokeswoman Amy Gundlach said. “When Starbucks came to us and told us about their change, that put a little more urgency on our research.”
Others are still experimenting with changes to their carefully guarded recipes.
Mainstream doughnut makers, whose products can have around 5 grams of trans fat apiece, are generally mum about their progress toward meeting New York’s citywide trans fat ban.
Dunkin’ Donuts, a branch of privately held Dunkin’ Brands Inc., says it has tested 22 alternative oils since starting its own push against trans fats in 2004.
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. says it “will continue to work aggressively with outside supply partners to develop a zero trans-fat doughnut.”
Food industry analyst Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com, says food companies will likely fast-track efforts to remove trans fats as the New York deadline moves closer and similar laws crop up elsewhere.
The big question for food makers, he said, is how consumers will react.
“I think you’re going to see the heavy doughnut user, if you will, walk away from the Krispy Kreme with no trans fats and say, ’Hmm, tastes different,”’ Lempert said. “It’s not that it tastes better or worse. It just tastes different.”
Consumers shouldn’t assume, however, that a trans-fat-free doughnut is necessarily healthy, said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University.
“My feeling is that the whole trans fat issue is a calorie distraction,” Nestle said. “You think that because it’s trans-fat-free, it doesn’t have any calories. And whatever the substitute is going to be, it’s going to have just as many calories.”
Becky Anderson, a Mighty-O regular in Seattle, said her loyalty owes in part to the store’s natural recipe — a better fit with her vegetarian diet. But she concedes that they’re still doughnuts.
“I’m not saying this is good for you,” Anderson said as she watched a stream of sizzling blobs of dough bob across a pool of organic palm fruit oil. “But it’s definitely not as bad.”