Trans fatty acids (TFAs) will soon be a thing of the past in New York City restaurants if the city’s Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene gets its way. The city’s public health officials say it’s time for the substance to be banned from restaurant menus.
“New Yorkers are consuming a hazardous, artificial substance without their knowledge or consent,” New York City Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden said in a September 26 news release announcing the proposed ban. “While it may take some effort, restaurants can replace trans fat without changing the taste or cost of food. No one will miss it when it’s gone.”
The proposal calls for phasing out TFAs over 18 months. Restaurants would have six months to begin using oils, margarine, and shortening that have less than 0.5 grams of TFAs. After 18 months, all other items on the menu will have to match that.
A second element of the plan requires that restaurants post calorie counts on menus and menu boards.
Just minutes before New York City public health officials held an October 30 hearing to discuss the proposed ban, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) announced plans to rid its menu of TFAs.
KFC officials said they will use low linolenic soybean oil instead; they plan to complete the conversion by April 2007. Some franchises in the chain have already begun using the new oil.
“This conversion follows more than two years of extensive testing to identify an oil that provides all the same delicious taste as our original recipes with zero grams of trans fat,” KFC Corporation President Gregg Dedrick announced in an October 30 news release. “The great news is that KFC’s Original Recipe and Extra Crispy chicken, along with the majority of our menu items at KFC, will have the same delicious taste with zero grams of trans fat. This is a win-win for our customers.”
TFAs, a product of partially hydrogenated oils, have been blamed for several health problems, including obesity and hypertension. Several studies show TFAs can raise bad cholesterol levels, lower good cholesterol, and clog arteries.
But not everyone is convinced that forcing recipe changes is the right way to battle obesity and its related conditions.
“There is no relation between trans fat and obesity,” said Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, a Manhattan-based consumer-education nonprofit focused on health and lifestyle issues.
“That idea has been a major catalyst to this movement. But trans fats have nine calories per gram, just like any other fat, regardless if they are saturated or not,” Whelan said. “That means there is no caloric difference between oils containing trans fats and those that don’t. Caloric intake is what’s most important when it comes to losing weight and reducing the risk of heart disease.”
Whelan says education is the key to beating the country’s obesity epidemic. She believes simply posting warning signs on food and ridding restaurants of TFAs will make little difference if people don’t know the importance of counting calories, exercising, and not smoking.
“She’s right in the sense that it is not a total solution; I could not agree with her more,” said Steven Joseph, CEO of Frytest.com, LLC and BanTransFats.com, Inc.–two Web sites aimed at forcing the food and restaurant industries to rid themselves of TFAs–who attended the city’s hearing. “But does that mean you don’t solve any of the problems? To criticize and say it does not solve all 10 problems doesn’t get us anywhere.”
Whelan said the main point is that government interference in restaurant food preparation is an increasing problem.
“There’s a growing trend of government getting involved in controlling chronic disease,” Whelan explained. “Government was integral in diminishing communicable disease. Now they are saying, ‘That’s done, so let’s do the same with chronic disease.’
“The problem is these are diseases that involve personal choice,” Whelan continued. “That’s different than putting chlorine in the water.”
Even before the New York City proposal, the federal government began taking steps to decrease the amount of TFAs Americans consume.
In early 2006 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring manufacturers to list the amount of TFAs on food labels. Under those regulations, foods that contain less than 0.5 grams of TFAs per serving can be labeled as trans fat free. Some companies are now using olestra, olive, soybean, sunflower, and canola oils as alternatives.
Chicago is also considering banning TFAs in restaurant fare.
Aricka T. Flowers ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Chicago.
For more information …
“Trans Fatty Acids and Heart Disease,” by Kathleen Meister, M.A., American Council on Science and Health, October 30, 2006, http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1415/pub_detail.asp