ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Speaking of cholesterol, today marks a milestone in the history of American cuisine, not to mention the history of fat. In New York City, this is the day when restaurants, bakeries, cafeterias, food carts have to stop using trans fats as the city implements the final phase of its ban - the most strict ban on trans fats in the nation. Last year, they had to take it out of the cooking oil; starting today, it's out of the piecrust, out of the cannoli, out of everything.
Well, we wondered what the public health tradeoffs are. Trans fats are linked to higher cholesterol and to coronary disease. New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, says the ban could save a couple of hundreds lives a year in New York City. But if not trans fats, what? Is butter or palm oil an improvement?
Well, joining us from New York University is Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health. Welcome to the program.
Professor MARION NESTLE (Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University): Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: I mentioned palm oil, which seems to be a fairly common substitute. Is that an improvement?
Prof. NESTLE: Well, it's very high in saturated fat and one of the great ironies of all of this is that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an enormous public outcry about the use of palm oil in food products because they were so high in saturated fat, and saturated fat is the one that raises the risk of blood cholesterol, and therefore heart disease risk, just the way the trans fat does, although maybe not to the same extent.
SIEGEL: So why not a ban on saturated fats then, instead?
Prof. NESTLE: Well, they're impossible to take out of the food supply. Saturated fats are part of every single oil and meat and dairy fat. All fats have some saturated fat in them, it's just a question of how much - animal fats have more than vegetable fats. But they're natural. Trans fat were artificial and so they could be removed, and that's why the city went after them.
SIEGEL: Are there other common substitutes for trans fats that strike you equally as, you know, six of one and a half dozen of the other?
Prof. NESTLE: Well, the easiest substitution is not hydrogenated oil, and that's a significant improvement. If you're trying to do what the trans fats did for the product manufacturers, which is to have an oil that's thicker and more stable at room temperature, then you have to do some tricks with it, and you either have to get an oil that's more saturated or you have to do some fancy chemical tricks to mix unsaturated oils with fully saturated oils and get the degree of saturation that you want.
But in any case, removing the trans fats does nothing for calories. Because whatever oil gets substituted for it will have exactly the same number of calories. This isn't about obesity; it's about reducing heart disease risk.
SIEGEL: Now, the ban in New York City applies to food that's served in various kinds of restaurants or other catering businesses. In terms of packaged foods, trans fats have already been addressed by the FDA.
Prof. NESTLE: Yeah, the FDA in 2006 required packaged food companies to put the amount of trans fat that they had in the product on their labels. And that was an immediate action that got companies to immediately remove the trans fat from their products, so that mostly what you see on labels is zero, zero, zero, zero.
Now, zero has a particularly interesting meaning because there's a little loophole that says, if the trans fat is less than half a gram per serving, the companies can claim that it's zero. And a lot of people are worried about that. I don't worry about that; it's really a small amount.
SIEGEL: But the sourdough pretzel that I'll admit to eating that says zero grams trans fat, in huge letters on the bag, has some other fat in it instead that I'm ingesting, you say.
Prof. NESTLE: Well, yes. You have to go look at the ingredient list and read through the ingredient list and see whether there is any hydrogenated fat in there. If there is hydrogenated fat, then the product falls underneath the half-gram rule. If there isn't, then it really doesn't have any trans fats.
SIEGEL: I read an Associated Press story about cannoli today and a baker who is - here's a public health danger - banging his head against the wall, he said, trying to get a cannoli that would stick together without using trans fats.
Prof. NESTLE: Oh, I'm a little bit surprised by that. I hate to say it, but those must not be very good cannoli. It's perfectly possible to make cannoli with a shortening that is - that doesn't have trans fatty acids in it.
SIEGEL; Well, Professor Nestle, thank you very much for talking with us about it.
Prof. NESTLE: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: That's Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
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