COLLEGE PARK – A beloved Baltimore cookie may never taste the same if the FDA has its way with a proposed ban on trans fats.
Berger Cookies, cake-like cookies topped with a thick slab of fudge, have been prepared with the same basic recipe since the 1800s in Baltimore.
But two of the cookies’ key ingredients—margarine and fudge—contain partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, a source of trans fat.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to ban the use of partially hydrogenated oils because of their link to coronary heart disease.
The FDA will make a final decision on enacting the ban after a 60-day public comment period ends Jan. 7. If the ban goes into effect, food manufacturers will no longer be allowed to sell partially hydrogenated oils or products that contain them without special approval from the FDA.
In the past two weeks, the Berger Cookie bakery has made two attempts to produce the cookies without trans fat, said owner and president Charles DeBaufre, Jr. The result was discouraging, he said.
“We’ve tried it and trust me, it is nasty. It doesn’t taste right,” DeBaufre said. “The texture’s not there. It’s an entirely different product.”
Trans fats are essential to the taste and flavor of the cookie, DeBaufre said. If the ban goes into effect, he said he would apply for an exception. If the bakery is denied an exception, he said he would continue to test out new recipes or “go out of business, one of the two.”
“I’m not going to go crazy about something that may not even work,” he said. “There may not be a solution and spending thousands of dollars to get it to work doesn’t make sense, does it?”
Food manufacturers across the country would be required to alter their recipes if the trans fat ban goes into effect. Many varieties of doughnuts, microwave popcorn, crackers and canned frosting depend on partially hydrogenated oils for their texture or flavor.
“More reformulation would need to be done and additional substitute ingredients would need to be developed if partially hydrogenated oils were removed from the processed foods that still contain them,” FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said in an emailed statement.
Manufacturers would have time to change their recipes to meet FDA regulations if a trans fat ban takes effect, Eisenman said.
“The FDA recognizes that this would take time, and has made clear that if this preliminary determination were to be finalized, it would include adequate time for producers to reformulate their products so as not to result in market disruption,” she said.
In Baltimore culinary lore, Berger Cookies share the same pedestal with National Bohemian beer and Old Bay. The cookie has inspired desserts like Dangerously Delicious Pies’ Baltimore Bomb Pie—filled to the crust with Berger Cookies—and new drinks like Full Tilt Brewing’s Berger Cookie Chocolate Stout, which debuted last week.
While some loyal Berger Cookie fans hope the bakery will comply with the FDA, others would rather not see the FDA enforce a trans fat ban at all.
Berger Cookie enthusiast Liz Lane, 21, of Ellicott City, said she would not support the ban because she does not want the FDA to control her diet.
“I know to pace myself and not indulge myself too much. I understand that they’re trying to make us healthy, but I don’t know if I need them to tell me how and what to eat,” Lane said, adding that she would not buy Berger Cookies prepared with a new recipe if they tasted “too different.”
Lane grew up eating Berger Cookies, often polishing off a box of cookies with her family in one night.
“Now I have to limit it to a treat. I could not eat them as much as I used to or I would die of a heart attack,” Lane said.
When the Berger Cookie bakery temporarily closed earlier this year for operating without a food service license, according to the Baltimore Sun, Lane was devastated.
“I cried. I was so sad. I thought I was never going to have them again,” she said. “When I heard they were going to fix the problem and reopen, it was a sigh of relief. It’s such a staple for people in Baltimore and Maryland and it’s just a part of life.”
Samantha Blee, 25, of Arlington, Va., also a Berger Cookie enthusiast, said she wouldn’t mind eating a Berger Cookie with a new recipe, as long as it tasted similar to the original.
“I can see big Berger Cookie fans getting upset about it but I would hope that people take health into consideration first,” Blee said.
DeBaufre said he has heard from devoted cookie fans who hope the recipe will not change. He said he told them that it’s not up to him, but that he will do what he can to keep the original cookies on the shelves.
“We’ll go to the lengths that we can without destroying the integrity of the product,” he said. “I don’t want to be in the conversation, ‘Berger Cookies used to be so good.’ I don’t want to be a part of that conversation.”