Is slimming down a city worth having the government intruding on private lives?
That’s a question Chicago has been struggling with over the past few months, since Ald. Edward Burke (D) introduced a proposal that would make Chicago the first city in the country to ban restaurants from using trans fats in their food.
“Chicago has the opportunity to take a bold step and protect its citizens from the ravages of unhealthy trans fats by banning their use in restaurants,” Burke said in June. “The end result could well be longer, healthier lives and reduced health costs for many Chicagoans.”
Trans fats, which raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol while lowering high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol, have been closely linked to heart disease.
Restaurant owners and advocacy groups joined forces to oppose the proposed ordinance.
“Our concern is that these laws should not be forced upon restaurants,” explained Illinois Restaurant Association President Colleen McShane. “Forcing them to immediately change their menu items or recipes can and will have a negative impact. We support a voluntary effort to reduce trans fats from menus, not a government mandate.”
In July, amid opposition from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Illinois Restaurant Association, Burke acquiesced to allowing small restaurants–those grossing less than $20 million per year–to continue using trans fats.
“We think [the compromise] is a step in the right direction,” McShane said. “However, the real issue is that the City Council of Chicago should not be mandating what goes into our recipes. You have a choice to eat whatever you want.”
Trans fatty acids form when liquid vegetable oils are treated through a chemical process called hydrogenation, resulting in a product that solidifies at room temperature. Restaurants use them because they create a distinct flavor (as in fast-food French fries) and can be stored easily in solid form at room temperature.
Scientific studies have shown trans fats increase LDL and decrease HDL immediately after consumption. Saturated fats–which are not derived from plants or animals but are not hydrogenated–only increase the bad cholesterol.
The Harvard Public School of Health, which began sounding the alarm about trans fats in the early 1990s, estimates as many as 50,000 American deaths per year can be linked to the substance.
Burke said his proposal, which was still being debated at press time, now targets the biggest trans fat offenders: fast-food corporations.
“The biggest source of this unhealthy eating is the fast-food outlets,” Burke told the Chicago Tribune in July. “I understand the argument that this is overregulating people’s lives, but it’s at the point now where if kids were permitted, they would be eating at these places three times a day.”
Restaurant advocates say consumers are creating sufficient pressure for change without a government mandate.
“Restaurants are responding to consumer demand,” McShane said. “Wendy’s, Cheesecake Factory, and Au Bon Pain are just a few examples of eateries choosing not to use or to significantly reduce trans fatty cooking oils.”
Slow to Act
Other American cities have been cautious about intruding on restaurants’ menu decisions. With all 18 of its restaurants voluntarily using fat-free cooking oils, Tiburon, California claims to be the nation’s first trans-fat-free city. Last year, New York City instituted a voluntary program asking restaurants to reduce trans fat use.
North Carolina is the only state with any kind of official trans fat ban. Under state law, all public schools there must use only trans-fat-free oils in preparing lunches.
Denmark is the only nation to ban trans fats entirely.
Gregory Brown ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in New Rochelle, New York.