On the Side | The trans- fat-free diet - want fries with that?

Posted: September 13, 2007

When they started deep-frying the Oreos at the Indiana State Fair in trans fat-free oil, you knew in your bones that the stuff was finally, really, toast.

Maybe that's why it felt oddly anticlimactic last week when Philadelphia's own ban descended: The fat lady had already sung; fast-food joints had forsworn trans fats; Oreo-bakers, too. Chefs had 86-ed them in the fry pits.

A diligent reporter could still tease a tepid complaint about food police from a sidewalk luncher. But there was no real heart in it.

Trans fats' rap sheet was way too chilling: They clog and inflame blood vessels, taking out 100,000 innocent victims a year, maybe more. Osama bin Laden has more friends.

So it has come to pass that "No Trans Fats" has been fitted out for its next act: It is bulking up (as all good food news must) from generally accepted warning, or advice, to fulfill its American destiny - as craven marketing tool.

Food-makers who had fought listing trans fats on nutritional labels now trumpet their banishment: The Oreos that come out of the Nabisco plant up on Roosevelt Boulevard have gone trans fat-free; please ignore the fine print still listing sugar as the lead ingredient.

Such are the rules of the "Hey-look-over-there!" labeling game. Ben & Jerry's ice cream makes a fetish of noting that it uses only milk from cows not dosed with growth hormones, an arguably good thing for the cows. But while you're feeling good about keeping Vermont's herds healthy, don't spoil the buzz by looking at the saturated fat content, about 75 percent of your daily limit in a half cup of "Sweet Cream & Cookie."

You'll find about the same level (15 grams) in Twin Hens upscale frozen chicken pot-pies, whose labels direct you to their virtues - "wholesome," "no antibiotics," "organic vegetables," "no preservatives." (That a single serving also supplies nearly half your salt limit for an entire day is listed, sotto voce, in the "nutrition facts.")

What you see is not quite what you get in the labeling fan dance.

"Antioxidants"? They sell chocolate now, and Pom, the hip pomegranate juice that's marketed as a martini mixer.

"Whole grain," hawks sugary kid's cereal.

"Organic" sells boxed mac and cheese, and tortilla chips.

You can feel good again about stuffing your face with carbs: "Yo, they're natural!"

And righteous about cranking up the fat (as long as it doesn't contain the prefix trans).

Which is of course the bait-and-switch beauty of it all: How bad can a junk food be if it's got zero grams of trans fat?

Why not make yours a double?

That's a depressingly unintended consequence of the ban, just as the history of trans fats (they were invented 100 years ago as a vegetable-based alternative to lard) didn't quite unfold as expected.

But it does make it easier to permit yourself the indulgence of one of Western civilization's culinary masterworks - Domino's new Oreo Dessert Pizza.

It's available for a limited time only. And, no, you can't get it with extra cheese.

Not yet, at least.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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