Girl Scouts cut trans fats from cookies
For much of the country, it's Girl Scout cookie time again. And this year, all those cookies, not just the Thin Mints and a few others, will come nearly free of harmful trans fats.
The Girl Scouts have marked their 90th year in the cookie business by getting most of the artificial fat out of all varieties of their iconic treats, which had been under attack by a few health-focused consumer groups.
The change reflects a movement by the scouts in recent years to add an element of health consciousness to their annual bake sale.
This year, about half of all Girl Scout troops are also offering a sugar-free cookie called the Little Brownie. A cookie with reduced saturated fat, the Cartwheel, was also introduced last year.
Tinkering with a popular recipe is something no cook does lightly, and Girl Scouts of the USA Vice President Denise J. Pessich said the changes were only made after the two commercial bakeries that make the cookies found trans-fat alternatives that didn't compromise flavor, texture or shelf life.
Pessich said she was confident fans would notice few differences. The recipe changes have also given troop leaders an opportunity to talk more about the importance of eating right, Pessich said.
"They know that, for one thing, you need to make informed choices. You need to read labels," she said.
In making the adjustments, the scouts are following other manufacturers who rid their products of trans fats after the Food and Drug Administration began requiring food labels to carry information on the substance last year. Scientific studies have linked trans fats to heart disease.
Cities around the country are also taking steps to ban trans fats at restaurants. New York became the first city to do so last year.
The first "zero trans" Girl Scout cookies made their debut in the fall of 2005, including a reformulated version of the top-selling Thin Mint. The remaining varieties had most trans fats eliminated by last October.
Consumer reaction is still developing. Most troops take their orders in January and begin deliveries in late February or early March.
But - taste aside - the initial feedback has been positive, said Anna Ho, who organizes sales for Troop 805 in Parsippany, N.J.
"People are saying, 'It's about time,' said Ho. "Everybody is conscious of the trans-fat issue ... My own sister used to rub me in the ribs sometimes and say, 'When are you going to go healthy?'"
She said the scouts seem to understand the need for a change too.
"These girls are pretty in tune," she said. "They know that at the high school, they started mandating healthier eating. The snacks changed. The vending machines changed. They are very aware that there is a kick on for a healthier lifestyle."
The scouts have been careful not to bill the updated cookies as health food. Even with the changes, most varieties are still high in sugar and saturated fat.
"Like any snack food, you talk about moderation," Pessich said. "We know we aren't selling broccoli."
In fact, the scouts are quick to point out, the new recipes aren't technically trans-fat-free either.
A look at the nutrition label reveals that most varieties still contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil - the primary source of trans fats in the U.S. diet. But the amount is less than half a gram per serving, low enough to allow a "zero grams of trans fat" label under FDA rules.
Every variety of Girl Scout cookie now meets that standard, based on serving sizes that range from four Thin Mints to two Samoas or Caramel deLites.
That's something for cookie fans to keep in mind as they open a box, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"If it says zero grams, but contains partially hydrogenated oil, people should know it does contain a little bit of trans fat," Jacobson said. "If somebody ate several servings of those foods a day, someone could consume 2 or 3 grams of trans fat, which is significant."