The menu at Riccardi’s Red Hots & Soda Fountain, a throwback diner in downtown Sycamore, is not for the faint of heart.
The Heart Stopper Line of hamburgers features the D-Fib, the Flatliner and the D.O.A. It’s a lighthearted nod to foods that are heavy in fat.
Yet even a menu that brazenly pokes fun at its own excess contains little or no artificial trans fats, which some Illinois lawmakers are trying to ban from restaurants.
“At home you’ll find more trans fats than you’ll find here,” said owner Frank Riccardi, belying the restaurant’s slogan that states, “If you want to eat healthy, you gotta go home!”
Trans fats may be used for deep-frying foods and can be found in vegetable shortening, margarine and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Trans fats raise a person’s bad cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases the risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and is associated with a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.
State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, D-Chicago, introduced the measure in the House. He said studies have shown that trans fat is a “poisonous additive” that is not needed in food. Trans fat protects bad cholesterol, he said, which can lead to clogged arteries.
“The most important thing is, if we know that something is not good, we should do something to project the best interests of the public,” he said.
The measure to ban trans fats in places that prepare and sell food has passed 73-43 in the Illinois House, and it is pending in the Senate.
An amendment to the bill has been approved by a Senate committee that would exempt breads, cakes, pastries, fried cakes, doughnuts and similar baked goods from the proposed ban.
Ford said he doesn’t totally agree with the Senate amendment, but agrees that small businesses should not be hurt in the current economic climate. He also said that those businesses need to move toward a mindset where they are thinking of customers first, not the bottom line.
“Using trans fats allows business owners to buy products and keep on shelves for a very long time, instead of using fresher ingredients,” Ford said. “It’s not really a benefit to the consumer, but to business.”
Local restaurant owners said they area already moving in that direction.
Riccardi said he will fry just about anything – French fries, onion rings, pizza puffs, bologna, zucchini, macaroni, even a pickle spear – but he uses vegetable oil that does not contain trans fats.
So does Bill McMahon, owner of the Lincoln Inn in DeKalb, who said when given a choice of products, he will opt for those that are free of trans fats.
“You try and do that because it’s the healthier choice,” McMahon said. “We already lean that way, but if it became law then we’d really have to take a close look at everything we have. That would be a huge task.”
Riccardi said the choice should be left to restaurant owners and their customers instead of being mandated by the government. That’s despite having an assessment of trans fat similar to that held by Ford.
“It’s made to last forever,” Riccardi said of trans fat. “The stuff is like nuclear waste.”
McMahon said it is not small restaurants but big business that drives the availability of products. National suppliers make products available to small restaurants only if those same products can be repackaged and produced for chain restaurants.
Making healthy choices
If the bill becomes law, Illinois would become the second state in the country to ban trans fats. California enacted a ban on trans fats in 2008. New York City also has banned trans fats.
State Sen. Christine Johnson, R-Shabbona, is on the Senate Public Health Committee, and she voted against the amendment that essentially would excuse bakeries from the ban. She said she plans to vote against the measure when it comes to the full Senate, which she anticipates will happen next week.
“I object to the whole overall idea of the bill,” she said. “It’s once again government attempting to legislate common sense. ... It’s not that I don’t want our citizens to be healthy. I do. But I want them to make that decision for themselves.”
Johnson noted the proposal is unclear on what a ban would mean for nonprofit organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars – which holds a weekly fish fry as a fundraiser – or Girl Scouts selling cookies.
State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, said he had mixed emotions on the proposal, which he voted against.
“I agree that we need to try to continue to move to fewer and fewer trans fat products,” he said, but also added the proposal seems to overreach on what government should mandate.
“I figure we ought to share information, we ought to encourage, but [it is not] the role of government to direct what people eat or what school lunches are,” he said. “People are very cognizant of trans fat now.”
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, also voted against the measure.
“It’s a personal decision of what to eat. I would just leave it at that,” he said. “Let people make their own decisions.”
Riccardi, purveyor of the heart-stopper hamburger, has had a heart-bypass procedure. He said it was the result of a birth defect that left him with narrow veins, and also childhood overindulgence at Dog ‘n Suds, Burger King and McDonald’s.
His own restaurant, he said, should be an occasional treat, not a daily diet.
“It would be easier to tell manufacturers to cut out the trans fat,” he said. “It’s healthier to eat here than to buy some of the quick, frozen stuff you get at grocery stores.”