Like the land that diets forgot, fairs are places of indulgence: elephant ears and corn dogs, cheese-on-a-stick and deep-fried anything, from the standard fries and onion rings to Twinkies, Oreos, Snickers bars and even chocolate-covered strawberries.
Fair food is far from health food, but one state fair is trying to make fried treats a little bit healthier by banning cooking oil containing trans fats.
Taking a cue from cities such as New York that have banned the oils, and fast-food companies such as KFC that no longer use it, the Indiana State Fair will require its vendors to cook in zero trans fat or in no trans fat oil this summer. It is believed to be the first state fair in the country to take such action against trans fats, fair spokesman Andy Klotz said.
"We found out it provides a healthier, better product with no drawbacks to the taste," Klotz said. "We were convinced this was good for everyone involved."
Trans fats, artificially created by hydrogenating oil, are shown to lower good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol. Chicago has considered banning the artery-clogging fats, and New York, Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Md., have banned them from restaurants. New York's ban took effect July 1, and the others become law this year or in 2008.
About 70% of the vendors at the Indiana State Fair were already using zero trans fat or trans fat-free oil. Before making the final decision on the ban, state fair employees held a taste test of corn dogs, elephant ears and French fries and determined that if the flavor wasn't the same, it was slightly better, Klotz said.
To make sure vendors are using the healthier oils, the Aug. 8-19 Indiana fair will require them to use oil purchased from the fair, he said. He expects the fair will go through 7,000 gallons of oil over 12 days.
The fair isn't trying to make money off the oil sales, Klotz said. "What we're trying to do is offer a healthier product and a better product. Hopefully people will come more and buy more. That's where we'll see our increase."
The oil without trans fats will cost more, Klotz said, but he didn't expect fair food prices to go up. Vendors can make up some of that additional cost because they can use the oils longer, he said.
Klotz said it is unlikely that the fair will issue a full ban on trans fats. "I don't think we'll ever attempt to go there, but it is nice to have a healthier product," he said.
Though others in the state fair business are watching, other state fairs in the Midwest aren't rushing to join the movement. Minnesota will provide signs to vendors who aren't using trans fat frying oil, and Wisconsin is keeping an eye on what happens in Indiana. Fairs in Illinois and Ohio say they haven't considered requiring vendors to use zero trans fat oils.
Illinois State Fair manager Amy Bliefnick knows banning trans fats is a trend in the food industry but was surprised to hear that the Indiana State Fair was doing it.
"You come to the fair to treat yourself and indulge in some of life's pleasures," Bliefnick said. "There's plenty of opportunity to have things that are healthy for you, if that's what you desire."
In Wisconsin, the state fair's food and beverage manager is keeping up on the trans fat-free movement but says he would want to make sure a ban was enforceable and wouldn't hurt any vendors before considering one. KFC spent a year developing its trans fat-free chicken recipe, says J. "Omar" Andrietsch, and he wants to make sure the fair's vendors would have time to make sure new oils wouldn't hurt the flavor of their signature products, whether that's a fried Twinkie or fried cheese.
"It's a big undertaking, and I don't think we should leap into something just because it's the hot topic of the day," Andrietsch said.
And he isn't sure the average fair-goer cares that the corn dog or blooming onion is trans fat-free. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to promote it," he said. "But it's not something that's going to happen overnight."
Dave Schlabach, executive director of the National Independent Concessionaires Assn., says many of his organization's 1,200 members are already switching, because products fried in oils free of trans fats are higher quality and taste better. He supports the Indiana fair's ban.
"No one likes to be told what to do, but in this case, it's OK," Schlabach said. "It's a way of reaching out to the public.... I don't think anyone looks at this as being particularly controversial."