New York Considers a Trans-Fat-Free City

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The New York City Health Board holds a public hearing on its plan to ban anything more than tiny amounts of trans fats at the city's 20,000 restaurants. New York would become the first large American city to strictly limit trans fats, although Chicago is considering a smaller plan. The final New York board vote is in December.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As we mentioned, the New York City Board of Health is considering a plan to force restaurants there to severely limit their use of trans fats. The board is also considering a proposal to make restaurants that serve burgers and fries and other standard fare list the calories in their products right on the menu.

Here's NPR's Margot Adler.

MARGOT ADLER: The hearing on trans fats was dominated by those who want to limit them, a veritable parade of doctors, nutritionists, school lunch officials, politicians - with a sprinkling of opposition expressed by restaurant trade associations and a couple of libertarians.

Until the 1990s, most people thought trans fats, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, were healthier alternatives to butter. They were also cheaper and restaurants switched. Then scientific research showed that trans fats had a direct impact on heart disease.

New York City Council member Peter Vallone typified many speakers.

Mr. PETER VALLONE (New York City Council): Trans fats kill kids. Trans fats kill adults. Ideally, the federal government should be doing this, but the food industry has so much influence there that Washington has not gotten up off its trans fat filled backsides to do anything.

ADLER: And by the way, he said, those ads the other side is using saying ice cream is going to be taken away from little girls -

Mr. VALLONE: Some of the people who oppose this are telling big fat lies.

ADLER: Fat was definitely the word of the day. Speaking against the ban on trans fats and against listing calories on menus were a number of restaurant trade association officials. Their main concern, a lack of supply of alternative oils that would hurt small businesses.

Sheila Cohn Weiss, who directs nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association, said it would be years before crop supply was adequate.

Ms. SHEILA COHN WEISS (National Restaurant Association): Some restaurants will have no choice but to revert to higher saturated fat oils. We don't believe the solution for New York City is to simply follow Denmark's lead, where food service companies have simply substituted palm oil for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

ADLER: At least one doctor disputed that Denmark had increased the use of saturated fats. Other opponents of the two plans said mandating a quick change would cause disaster in the New York economy. After all, they said, many restaurant owners didn't even know what trans fats were.

And Audrey Silk, who campaigned long and hard against the smoking ban in the city, said I told you so. Food is next on the slippery slope of government regulations in the nanny state.

Ms. AUDREY SILK: We resent for public health a role and a power that it's never historically had and never was supposed to have. Social engineering, eliminating choice and coercing behavior is not the American way.

ADLER: But there were few voices echoing these sentiments. Even some of the restaurant owners, and few were there to testify came out of their way, in some cases from California and Chicago to give support to the trans fat ban.

Ms. INA PINKNAY: Winning the best fried chicken in Chicago contest didn't hurt.

ADLER: Ina Pinknay of Ina's Restaurant in Chicago said she made the switch several years ago, and not only did it improve the fried chicken, it didn't hurt her pancake batter or her carrot cake.

A representative from Wendy's said his only objection was insisting that calories be listed only for big chains that already provide nutritional information.

Across the street, two demonstrations took place - one pro and one con. The only advantage of the anti-trans fat crowd was they gave away free food. Heather Umla(ph) and Ken Hoag(ph) pushed samples of potatoes and muffins toward me.

ADLER: What are these? What are these that we have here?

Ms. HEATHER UMLA: A trans fat free muffin that we made from Fancy Go Catering. We're an organic catering company. We support the use of non-trans fat oils.

ADLER: And what are those over there?

Mr. KEN HOAG: Those are baby yellow potatoes and they're fried in the Whole Harvest No-Trans Oil, expeller pressed oil.

ADLER: The New York City board of health is supposed to make its decision by December.

Margot Adler, NPR News. New York.

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A Guide to Trans Fats

Food label

Regulations from the Food and Drug Administration require food manufacturers to list trans fats on products that contain 0.5 grams or more of the unhealthy oil. Scott Olson / Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson / Getty Images

KFC has joined three other chain restaurants in eliminating trans fat from their menus. Chili's, Wendy's and Ruby Tuesday recently dropped trans fat, an artificial hydrogenated fat which increases the level of bad cholesterol in the bloodstream.

KFC made the announcement the same day New York City held its first public hearing on the cooking oil. The city is trying to ban trans fat in restaurants, which often use the unhealthy oil to make fried foods and baked goods.

Denmark and the city of Tiburon near San Francisco have already banished trans fats from all local eateries. Other cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles are weighing a switch to a healthier, soybean — or canola-based oil.

Why does the health world hate trans fat so? We talked to three public-health researchers about what consumers need to know about the shortening.

What is trans fat?: Trans fat is made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil — a process invented in the late 19th century to help lengthen the shelf life of food products. The added hydrogen also makes frying oil last longer.

Why it's bad for you: Partially hydrogenated oil "raises the bad blood cholesterol (LDL) while lowering the good cholesterol (HDL)," says Marion Nestle, the author of What to Eat and a professor in the nutrition department at New York University. "It's worse than saturated fat because it's introducing something unnatural into the body. There's no reason to have trans fats in food. They're unnecessary, artificial and demonstrably bad."

Where it's found: According to the Food and Drug Administration, trans fat can be found in products such as cookies, crackers, vegetable shortenings, some margarines and snack foods. Just look for the phrase "partially hydrogenated oil" on the label. As of Jan. 1, 2006, all food manufacturers are required to label trans fat in their products.

Why food companies like it: One of the reasons food companies like partially hydrogenated oil is because they can use the oil again and again in the deep fryer, says Jeff Cronin, the communications director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit advocacy organization that sued KFC in June for using trans-fat-laden oil in the deep fryers.

Using trans fat saves money, says Cronin, but more importantly, the process saves the employees from continually changing the cooking oil, which often splatters. He points to a common myth: changing the oil to a non-trans fat will changes the taste of the product. Other factors, such as varying ingredients and cooking styles, are more likely the reasons for the taste difference. For example, baked potato chips do not have the same taste as fried potato chips.

Why it's on the wane in store-bought goods: "Once the FDA required food manufacturers to label their products, everyone managed to find a substitute," says Nestle. And no matter what fat they use, it's not nearly as bad as trans fat, says Walter Willet, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Even substituted fat would still lead to a reduction in deaths from heart disease," Willet says.

The best health option is switching to an unsaturated fat, which helps lower cholesterol. Food manufacturers are slowly beginning to make the switch to these unsaturated fats. Look for monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats on the label, which indicate healthier oils such as olive, sunflower and soybean.

Wendy's has switched, McDonald's has not: Wendy's is the only one of the three big burger chains that has made the switch to trans-free oils, says Cronin.

"McDonald's promised to make the switch in 2002," he says. "They were sued in 2004 by the American Heart Association and had to donate $7 million to promote banning trans fats. They still have not made the switch."

Other chains — such asChili's and Ruby Tuesday — fry their foods in trans-fat free canola oil.

But McDonald's is still using trans fat products.

When asked to explain its position, McDonald's said in a written statement that it is researching oil alternatives, and that the company's "priority is to also meet our customer expectations for taste and quality."

Surprise! It's still in some store-bought products: Even if a label says a product has zero grams of trans fat, it may not be true.

Under FDA regulations, "if the serving contains less than 0.5 gram of trans fat, the content, when declared, shall be expressed as zero." Food products, such as crackers, could contain .49 grams of trans fat and not require a label. You can eat a serving of crackers (from 5 to 15 crackers, depending on the brand and definitely not unusual for snack food) — and still get trans fat. Two servings that might seem to have no trans fat could actually have nearly a gram. And any amount of trans fat –- even in trace quantities -– can increase your chances of developing heart disease.

So to find out if a product has even trace amounts of trans fat, look at the ingredient list. If the ingredients list the words "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," "hydrogenated vegetable oil" or "vegetable shortening," the food contains trans fat.

Waiter, is that a trans fat in my fry? When dining out or buying goods at a bakery, you won't know whether you're consuming trans fats unless you ask. And you won't really know unless, as Willet suggests, you ask to see the label for the fat that restaurants choose for frying. It should not have the words "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," "hydrogenated vegetable oil" or "vegetable shortening" anywhere on the label.

It might be a little embarrassing to grill the waiter, but Willet thinks you should persist. "It's really good to do that," he says, "because it helps educate the restaurants, as well. A lot of them don't know they're using trans fat."

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