In New York City today the board of health is meeting to consider banning restaurants from using a common cooking ingredient - trans fats. Fast food chain KFC is beating them to it. The company announced today it will no longer be using trans fats in its most popular menu items.
Here with the skinny on this trans fat development is NPR's Mike Pesca. He is in our New York studios. Hi, Mike.
MIKE PESCA: Hello.
BRAND: Well, we all know pretty much by now that trans fats aren't the healthiest item to be consuming. So - but does the food industry just use them like they use sugar and salt just to make things taste better?
PESCA: Well, it's not actually primarily an issue of deliciousness. The idea was to get vegetable oil into food, but it turns out vegetable oil doesn't really stand up to heat well and it spoils pretty easily. So chemists way back when decided to add some hydrogen. And so hydrogenated vegetable oil, which you've heard about, that's what trans fats are.
And the FDA has recommended limiting trans fats and hydrogenated vegetable oil. New York City looks like it's going to ban it. So KFC jumped out ahead of the issue and said we're taking it out of our chicken, though they'll use it in some biscuits and so forth.
BRAND: So will their chicken taste different?
PESCA: Yeah. The chicken probably won't. And like I said, it's not really a deliciousness issue. Even the people in New York, some of the restaurants were against the ban, do concede that most of the food will taste the same. I guess most people who eat it will eat it in french fries, and they say you can't really taste the difference between trans fat french fries and non-trans fat.
But there are some items, the deep-fried things like egg rolls and cannoli and some chocolate chip cookies that have to do with texture and mouth feel. They say if you eliminate trans fat, you really will be able to feel that. But its more for them an issue of the food police or government paternalism telling restaurants and private businesses that you can't do this just because it's not good for you.
BRAND: Well, do they dispute the basic science behind it?
PESCA: Yeah. Anytime there's a scientific issue, obviously, you know, one side will say, well, the science is still out on that. But for the most part, the gist of the people who are opposing this ban that not their argument.
They kind of - talk about a scenario, they say something like this. Let's say you are go into a supermarket and on the shelf there are cookies. And then next to those regular delicious cookies are low-fat cookies. Now the low-fat cookies are probably a little better for you. So the question is, does that mean the government should take the regular cookies off the shelf just because the low-fat ones are better for you?
Then on the other hand, with the cookie scenario, those foods are labeled. You could choose because you know what they are. When you go into a restaurant and you order something, you just get it served to you. You don't know if they use trans fat. You don't know if they don't use trans fat.
So from the eater's perspective, if I have my normal lunch of a cannoli and egg roll and french fries, I'm going to be a lot healthier after this trans fat ban. I mean I maybe able to live into my late 30s based on that diet.
BRAND: With your normal lunch?
PESCA: Yeah. I tell (unintelligible) and my egg roll.
BRAND: So, Mike, the board of health is meeting today there in New York, and if they decide to ban trans fats in New York City restaurants, what next?
PESCA: Yeah. The board of health, there's no one with a veto over that. The City Council doesn't have a veto over them. The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, can't veto it, though he is behind the trans fat ban. He was behind the smoking ban. He is a big public health advocate. He gave millions of dollars, and that's why Johns Hopkins School of Public Health is named after him.
So if the Board of Health decrees it after this public meeting, the only shot opponents will have is perhaps to get a tempura restraining order.
BRAND: NPR's Mike Pesca in New York. Hey, enjoy your egg rolls today.
PESCA: Yeah. I'm sorry about those comments.
BRAND: Thanks, Mike.
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