What is a hydrogenated oil?
That was the question David Burton posed to pedestrians in Washington, D.C., and New York City last year while filming his food documentary, InGREEDients.
He got a lot of blank stares.
"A massage oil?" guessed one woman in Times Square.
Partially hydrogenated oil, an artificial fat once seen as a cheap and healthy alternative to saturated fats, has been a staple in the food industry for decades.
Because the fat stays solid at room temperature, it appears on the ingredient list of many mass-produced cookies, cakes and other grocery staples.
But trans fat, a component of the oil, is actually more dangerous than the saturated fat it replaced, studies have shown. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, trans fats raise LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels, increasing your risk for coronary heart disease.
Burton, 34, finished his film on the dangers of partially hydrogenated oils about eight months ago. He has since screened it at Tampa's Gasparilla International Film Festival and the Honolulu International Festival. On Friday, it will be screened at the Art Institute of Tampa.
Burton hopes InGREEDients raises awareness about partially hydrogenated oils. Even Burton, a registered nurse at New Port Richey's Community Hospital, had a lot to learn when he started his research two years ago after a friend mentioned the oil's health consequences in passing.
"I realized, wow, this is the most dangerous ingredient in the food supply," he said. "Why don't I know this?"
Filmmaking has always been a hobby of Burton's, who moved to Land O'Lakes three years ago from Connecticut to be closer to his wife's family. He's produced short documentaries on beer and music festivals, but the 76-minute InGREEDients marks his first full-length film.
Over the course of a year, Burton and his production team interviewed multiple experts, including Harvard School of Public Health professors Dr. Walter Willett, "the godfather of trans fat research," and Dr. Meir Stampfer.
"When those two said they would interview and help me get the message out, that's when we knew we had a feature film," Burton said.
InGREEDients cost $50,000 to produce. Burton jokes that it was sponsored by Visa and MasterCard, at least the ones in his wallet and those of his collaborators, including his wife, Robyn.
Robyn Burton, 33, worked for many years as a local mortgage broker but lost her job in January 2008. She joined her husband's production company, Sir Rebel Films, as the finance manager.
While working on InGREEDients, the family completely made over their diet to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils. They traded graham crackers and cereals with the ingredient for other varieties without. They've even approached their 3-year-old daughter Jordyn's preschool about making the same trades at snack time.
"That's how it has to start," Mrs. Burton said.
When friends complain to her that buying healthy foods is too expensive, she points out that hydrogenated oil-free foods are sometimes cheaper than their unhealthy alternatives. It's just a matter of reading the labels and sometimes, looking for generic brands.
"Alternatives exist," she said. "A lot of people say they can't afford it, but I'm unemployed and we make it a priority to eat right."
She was also quick to mention that she lost 40 pounds after she stopped eating partially hydrogenated oils.
The couple hopes the movie will take off, educate the public and allow them to work for Sir Rebel Films full time.
But David Burton said he is hesitant to leave Community Hospital.
"I want to continue to make movies about what I see here," he said.
His next documentary may be on dying with dignity, he said, a struggle many patients go through at hospitals across the country.
Or he may stick to dangerous foods and produce films about the health consequences of ingredients such as MSG and the artificial sweetener aspartame.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7312.