Bye-bye Bourekas?

Is the war on trans fat an American public relations gimmick or will Israel create similar legislation?

California has declared war on a new enemy: trans fat. At the end of last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law prohibiting the use of trans fat in the state's restaurants and bakeries, effective 2010. A similar law, prohibiting the use of trans fat in New York City restaurants, went into effect this month. Is this merely an American public relations gimmick?

Israeli dieticians say that it is not, and note that similar legislation could help the Israeli public as well: While the Americans like their Oreos and chocolate chip cookies, Israelis have one prominent trans fat food: bourekas, those savory, flaky pastries filled with cheese, potatoes, spinach and the like.

"Trans fat comes from vegetable oils like canola and soy," says clinical natural dietician Debbie Sahar. "With our own hands we convert it from its healthy form, called cis-unsaturated, into solid fat, called trans-unsaturated, a viscous fatty acid that clogs the arteries and causes trouble."

Dietician Olga Raz explains that the solidified fat increases LDL ("bad") cholesterol and plaque formation, and can even lead to an increased risk of cancer. Despite its disadvantages, trans fat has become popular with manufacturers - it's cheap, convenient for baking and has a long shelf life.

Israelis' affection for bourekas and manufactured pastries, along with the long work days that lead to snacks of this sort, are liable to have disastrous results. Another risk factor is the widespread use of margarine in Israel - in part due to kashrut considerations - since margarine is entirely trans fat.

"These are substances that are very harmful to cells, really destructive," says Sahar. "We encounter trans fat in all baked goods that contain margarine and solid fats, in all baked goods with cheap chocolate, and in every product that contains 'solidified vegetable fat,'" she notes. Sahar and Raz recommend reading the ingredient list on products, and if a solid fat is one of the first three, then it should be avoided.

The good news for Israelis is that restaurants here are better than in the United States. Even McDonald's in Israel stopped using trans fats as far back as 2004, and switched to canola oil. Two years later, McDonald's New York also went over to canola.

Israeli chefs consider trans fat "a worse enemy than cigarettes," says chef Avi Conforti, the chef of Mozes, among others. "There is no reason to encounter it in a restaurant that has any self-respect, regardless of its price tag."

Chef Erez Komorovsky, the founder of Lehem Erez, believes "there is no logical reason" for Israelis, who live in a land of abundant olive oil, to go anywhere near trans fat, unless they are locked into a conference room for most of the day. "And then their situation is not all that great," he says.

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