Elvis, Trans Fats Have Left the Diner
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007; Page F01
If you're wondering why something as all-American as a diner would make such a health-conscious, un-diner-like move as to switch to trans fat-free oil, here's the answer: This particular diner's co-founder isn't American at all.
At the Silver Diner chain, Ype (pronounced EEE-puh) Von Hengst has spent years playing his restaurants against type. Von Hengst, who cooked in his native Holland and in Germany and Switzerland before moving to the United States in 1976, has put "Tasty Low-Carb" (TLC, for short) selections on his menu, as well as offerings with reduced fat or cholesterol. He knows that his customers spend a chunk of their disposable income on organic and fair-trade food products, even if they're ordering eggs and bacon at his place.
So long before New York City decided to bar artery-clogging trans fats from that city's restaurants, Von Hengst started working to bar them from his diners.
"When you go to a diner, people immediately have the perception it is a greasy spoon sort of place, no matter what you do," he said, sitting in a booth arrayed with appetizers and main dishes in the chain's original Rockville location. "We're trying to show we're not a greasy spoon."
That is not to say that 15 Silver Diners scattered across Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey are devoid of grease. To the contrary: Between 15 and 20 percent of the restaurants' 106 selections are dunked in oil at some point in the cooking process. Patrons can order New England Jumbo Clam Strips, a Jumbo Onion Ring Basket or a selection of assorted onion rings, mozzarella sticks and chicken tenders, all of which feature a golden-brown coating of sizzled flakiness.
As of mid-January, however, all of those crispy items will be fried in a new soybean-based oil rather than the traditional hydrogenated oil that dominates the nation's fast-food industry.
Hydrogenated oils became popular in the 1960s, when restaurants and food manufacturers began avoiding animal fats. With a long shelf life and higher smoke point, partially hydrogenated oils had commercial appeal and seemed to offer a more healthful alterative to saturated fats. In recent years, however, scientific research has shown that the trans-fatty acids in partially hydrogenated oils increase the level of harmful cholesterol and can affect metabolism rates as well.
The tide has turned against trans fats, which now evoke "heart disease" in the way that baby oil used for suntanning screams "skin cancer." New York City's Board of Health voted Dec. 5 to outlaw trans fats almost entirely in restaurant cooking by July 1, 2008, making it the first city in the country to adopt such a ban. Fast-food chains Wendy's and KFC have made or announced plans to switch, as have at least two area restaurants, Capitol City Brewing Co. and B. Smith's.
"I don't think the society and customers and the law are going to give us a choice anymore," Von Hengst said. Eliminating trans fats from the menu will increase the chain's frying oil costs by at least 15 percent, but the increase will not be passed on to customers, he said.
Von Hengst and partner Bob Giamo spent nearly a year working with their oil provider, Minnesota-based Restaurant Technologies Inc., to make the switch. RTI purchased a new generation of genetically modified soybean oil with a lower level of linolenic acid, a substance that reduces the oil's shelf life. The new oil costs more because the modified soybeans are more expensive and fewer farmers grow them.
"I started pushing them and pushing them and told them, 'If you don't do something about it, I'll do it myself,' " said Von Hengst, 56. "It's a question of supply and demand. The public demands it, but the suppliers aren't quite ready."
RTI installed two stainless-steel silos in the back of the diners' kitchens to handle the new oil. Every week the company removes the 15 to 20 gallons of oil and deposits fresh oil in its place. While the oil's limited supply makes it costlier right now, Von Hengst said, he expects the price to drop as more suppliers seek a more healthful frying oil. RTI has since started supplying the new soybean oil to restaurants in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Greensboro, N.C., and Newark, N.J., and will offer it to Los Angeles restaurants soon.
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