Proposed Trans Fat Ban and Calorie Listing Sparks Debate

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The New York City Board of Health and Mental Hygiene has proposed plans to require the phasing out of heart-damaging, artificial trans fats in all of the city’s 24,000 restaurants, and also to require some of those restaurants to post calorie counts for their products on menus and menu boards. The proposals have excited supporters and detractors and triggered national debate.

The board, which is a panel appointed by New York City’s mayor and consists chiefly of physicians and other health professionals, plans to vote on these proposals in December after a period of public comment.

The first proposal would give restaurants within the city until July 2007 to switch their cooking fats from trans-fat-containing sources to oils, margarines, and shortenings with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. They would have until July 2008 to eliminate artificial trans fats from all other foods. Restaurants that refused to comply with the ban would be fined.

Artificial trans fat is a solid form of fat that is created by the “partial hydrogenation” of liquid oils, which in their natural state consist mostly of healthier, unsaturated fat. Partial hydrogenation lengthens the shelf life of oils, which is the main reason why trans fat is widely used in the food and restaurant industries. A very small amount of trans fat also occurs naturally in some animal products. Trans fat consumption has been shown to raise LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels while lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. These actions increase the risk of heart disease and stroke—the leading causes of death in people with diabetes.

Several organizations, including the American College of Cardiology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Diabetes Association (ADA), support the proposed ban. In a statement, the ADA said that the move would help the more than 700,000 adults in New York City who have diabetes avoid trans fats and maintain a healthy diet, and that the organization hopes that the proposal will serve as a model for other cities to consider. The New York State Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association have countered by saying that the ban would hurt small business owners. And the American Heart Association (AHA) only offered “conditional support” for the ban, with its president stating that while it supports the removal of trans fats from food, it did not support the city’s method of going about it. The AHA would rather see a ban phased in slowly, with care taken to see that restaurants replace trans fats with heart-healthy oils rather than saturated fat.

The fast-food restaurant chain Wendy’s has already switched to a trans-fat-free cooking oil, and on October 30, KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) announced that it would phase out trans fats in the cooking of its fried foods, which make up about 80% of its menu, by April 2007. Burger King announced this week that it would test trans-fat-free cooking oil in some of its branches over the next 90 days. McDonald’s pledged to change its cooking oil in 2002, but continues to test different options and has not yet made the switch.

Also included in the New York City Board of Health and Mental Hygiene’s recommendations is a proposal to make the caloric content of restaurant foods more easily accessible to customers. The proposal would require certain restaurants to clearly display calorie counts for the items they sell on menus and menu boards. This rule would apply to restaurants that sell highly standardized items and portions and that already share their caloric content in formats such as brochures or on the Internet. About 10% of the restaurants in New York City, including many fast-food chain restaurants, would be affected if this proposal is approved. The new menus and menu boards would have to be in place by July 2007.

What’s your take on these proposals? How much should public policy be used to improve people’s diets? Do you think that such changes would make your restaurant experience better, or impede your enjoyment of dining out? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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