We're still fighting the grease wars

Is it really OK to eat a fish sandwich now that it's trans-fat-free?

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V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette
The Original Oyster House in Market Square has changed the cooking oil it uses for frying fish sand-wiches. Tri-Fri, the new healthier oil, is being used by Bob Lutzko, the head fryer.
Click photo for larger image.

The fryers are still splattering grease at the Original Oyster House, home of the big flaky fish sandwich that hangs over the bun.

But the cooking oil has changed.

"No Trans Fats. No Cholesterol," proclaims the sign at the Market Square restaurant.

"We joke that if we have healthier customers, maybe they will come here longer," said Rick Faust, manager of the restaurant.

The 137-year-old institution, whose fiercely loyal clientele flocks to a menu of mostly fried food, joins a growing list of restaurants small and large. Wendy's rid its food of artery-clogging trans fat. KFC and Taco Bell are switching over to trans-fat-free oil. Starbucks is banning trans fats from its baked goods.

Locally, Eat'n Park uses trans-fat-free cooking oil. Mad Mex chips are trans-fat-free. Morton's The Steakhouse, Downtown, serves up trans-fat-free fries.

While nutritionists applaud these moves, some worry that the marketing of trans-fat-free foods could backfire and make us gorge on fatty foods.

"People say, 'I didn't have any trans fat. I can have the Biggie fries,' " said Leslie Bonci, director of Sports Medicine Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. "My response is 'You are going to get Biggie thighs.' "

The issue is a hot one now that New York City is banning trans fats from city restaurants, and other places are considering bans. The local governments are facing off with restaurants that cling to trans-fat oils because they give foods a nice crunch and a long shelf life -- arguments that Will Clower, a Pittsburgh neuroscientist, doesn't find compelling enough.

"Ban the fat," said Dr. Clower, author of "The Fat Fallacy" and "The French Don't Diet."

"We know the data. Trans fat causes an estimated 30,000 heart-related deaths each year and a number of heart attacks. Why not just replace those oils with healthier ones? What could be more obvious and important than providing sustenance that doesn't contribute to your death?"

Invented in the early 1900s, trans fat or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was initially believed to be a healthy substitute for natural fats, such as butter or lard. But recent studies have shown it is even less healthy than butter or saturated fats.

Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the UPMC Weight Management Center, agrees that taking trans fats off the menu is a good first step because they raise the bad cholesterol and lower the good cholesterol. But she is concerned that people will have a false sense of healthiness and eat even more fried foods.

"The rubber stamping of heart-healthy fat is not OK. This deflects from the main issue. We eat too much food and way too much fat. If anything, this is going to confuse people."

Double messages

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Harris Grill chef Matt Butoryak shows off the Shadyside restaurant's Bacon Night specialty.
Click photo for larger image.

Rodney Swartz, co-owner of the Harris Grill in Shadyside, mocks some of the restaurant marketing of trans-fat-free foods. He laughs at how the fried Twinkie on his dessert menu -- called "the wrongest dessert ever" -- is fried in trans-fat-free oil.

"We use the healthiest ingredients ever to make the worst food ever. We use no trans fat when we make your Twinkie. If that makes you feel better ..."

Before it became popular to cook food in trans-fat-free oil, Mr. Swartz fried foods in a canola and corn oil blend because he liked it better. He said he grills fish and tries to make the menu reasonably healthy.

But in a nod to guilty pleasure, the restaurant has the highly popular "Bacon Night" -- free bacon slow-cooked in its own fat -- at the bar on Tuesday nights. "It is a public service for people who are not allowed to keep bacon in their homes."

The bar cooks up 45 pounds of bacon and serves it to patrons such as Terry Varner, who travels from his Monroeville home to Shadyside weekly just for the pleasure of eating bacon and drinking frozen Cosmos.

"Bacon night is awesome," he said while chowing down his fifth basket of bacon. "We even do bacon karaoke. We call it bacon-oke. We make up bacon songs. 'Your bacon is always on my mind," the 36-year-old crooned.

Chef Matt Butoryak passed out baskets of crispy bacon as he quipped: "We have corporate underwriting from Lipitor."

After all, eating out is often an indulgence, he said, a license to eat food you don't allow yourself at home. "When you eat at home, you are healthy. When you go out, you want an experience," Mr. Butoryak said.

The restaurant also prides itself on generous portions of food.

"I am fat," Mr. Swartz said. "I hate to go away from a restaurant hungry. I don't want to be known as skimpy."

To critics who say it is irresponsible for restaurants to serve up humongous sandwiches and big piles of fries as Americans get fatter, he counters: "They are being as irresponsible as an automobile maker that makes a car that goes over 65 mph. That can really hurt you, too. It is not the restaurant industry's responsibility to make sure people eat what they are supposed to."

Healthy fare goes begging

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Terry Varner, 36, of Monroeville is a regular at Bacon Night at the Harris Grill in Shadyside -- "a public service for people who are not allowed to keep bacon in their homes," says co-owner Rodney Swartz. Varner sometimes eats eight basketfuls with about five strips per basket.
Click photo for larger image.

Some restaurateurs say healthful, dainty-sized entrees are a hard sell.

Pittsburgh Steak House in the South Side offers light and lively lunch specials such as pasta with broiled chicken. "It doesn't move," said owner Dean Kostas, whose restaurant cooks with trans-fat-free oil. "They say they want it, but they don't."

Other restaurants, however, have carved out a niche serving healthful foods in smaller portions.

The Sonoma Grille, Downtown, which serves California-style cuisine to a clientele of mostly women, serves many entrees in 5-ounce portions. "Other restaurants give you this huge platter of food. You can barely finish it. Or you waste half of it," said co-owner Yves Carreau. "We don't do that here. People like to feel good about their choices."

Among the popular light entrees are an open-face salmon sandwich with chipotle pumpkin butter -- not real butter but caramelized pumpkin puree -- and a Cobb salad with baby organic microgreens and fresh beets. Tofu marinated in curry and lemon grass is a favorite of former Steeler Jack Hamm, said chef Andrew Hebson.

Mr. Hebson said he cooks mostly healthfully by bringing out the natural flavor of food without a lot of fat -- let alone trans fat. "A lot of places hide behind butter and cream."

Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Big Burrito Restaurant Group, said he also concentrates on fresh food, making trans fat mostly a moot point for most dishes. "I firmly believe that if you have great food that is prepared from raw ingredients, you do better than light food that is highly processed," said Mr. Fuller of Big Burrito, which includes Eleven, Kaya, Casbah, Soba and others.

The one trans-fat issue was the tortilla chips at Mad Mex restaurants. At the beginning of the year, Mr. Fuller switched to tortilla chips fried in trans-fat-free oil. Mr. Fuller thinks they taste the same, but he is not sure if they will have the long shelf life of the trans-fat chips.

Eat'n Park, known for Smiley cookies and strawberry pie, has also had success with its Eat'n Smart menu of entrees with fewer than 500 calories and less than 20 grams of fat. The scrod baked in orange juice is popular. In fact, 45 percent of all entrees sold are seafood dishes, and more than half of them are on the light menu, said Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing for the family restaurant chain. Any customer can buy a small senior portion.

While the chain made headlines by dropping its trans-fat cooking oil in 2005, it is still working on finding a trans-fat-free shortening for its baked goods. "With bakery products, it is a little trickier," said Mr. O'Connell. "Our goal is to be trans-fat-free by 2008."

Restaurants that lag on the trans-fat issue will likely lose customers, said Michael Jacobson, chief executive of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group advises people not to eat McDonald's and Burger King fried foods. Mr. Jacobson, however, credited McDonald's with making progress by removing trans-fat oil from more than 1,000 restaurants, but blasted Burger King as "a laggard."

At the Original Oyster House, customers were not clamoring for a trans-fat-free fried fish sandwich.

But the management decided to take the step on its own in the fall because of health concerns. It worried that its loyal customers wouldn't like it as much, but Mr. Faust said the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Tri-Fri," the pamphlet says brightly. "The Heart-Healthy Premium Oil Blend. High in Omega 6 and Vitamin E."

On a recent day, Port Authority workers Manny Martinez, 46, and Mike Whitico, 48, were munching on fish sandwiches, an occasional lunch treat for the brown baggers.

"I think it is healthier than before," said Mr. Martinez, who had skipped the bun and fries. "It doesn't have a greasy taste at all."

But one of Mr. Faust's customers was wondering out loud about the health improvement. "Is it OK to eat a fish sandwich now that is it not fried in trans-fat oil?" he asked Mr. Faust. "Is the fish healthy for you?"

"At worst, it is not nearly as bad for you," Mr. Faust told him. "Hey, it is better for you. But is it good for you? Time will tell."


Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.


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