Big Apple no longer Fat City

If they can ban trans fat there, they can ban it anywhere.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published December 6, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

Holy doughnut holes! The New York City Board of Health voted Tuesday to ban artificial trans fats in restaurants, making it the first major American city to phase out the kind of fats that were once ubiquitous in such consumer products as margarine and Crisco. By July 1, 2007, everyone from KFC to Tavern on the Green will have to stop using most frying oils containing the artery cloggers, and by July 1, 2008, they will have to eliminate the artificial fats from all the rest of the foods they serve, such as baked goods.

Chicago is also considering banning trans fats, while the small, affluent hamlet of Tiburon, Calif., convinced all restaurants to ditch them voluntarily years ago. But New York's restrictions are precedent setting -- and the city's health board also passed a requirement that fast food chains, which now voluntarily provide calorie information to customers, must post the calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. Diners will soon be confronted with the startling caloric difference between medium and a large fries, when deciding what to order for the dinner.

Nutritionists such as New York University's Marion Nestle supported both the trans fat ban and the calorie labeling in New York, yet remain skeptical about the impact these efforts will have on overall public health in the city. Nestle, a professor in New York University's department of nutrition, food science and public health and a prominent critic of the food industry, talked to Salon about what banning trans fats in restaurants will -- and won't -- do to New Yorkers' waistlines, not to mention the taste of their French fries.

What exactly are trans fats?

They're artificial fats that are created when normally unsaturated vegetable oils are hydrogenated, which is more chemistry than anyone wants to know. Hydrogenation does two things. It makes the oils more saturated, which is bad, and also produces an artificial kind of unsaturated fat that acts like saturated fat in the body, but may be even worse for you in raising the risk of heart disease.

What foods have trans fats?

You can't tell. When the FDA said in January of this year that food companies had to put trans fat information on food labels, the trans fat miraculously disappeared from processed food. They took them out. All that means is that they used a different kind of oil that wasn't hydrogenated. The FDA rules didn't apply to restaurants. The restaurants were free to continue using to use it.

So why do restaurants keep using the stuff?

It's more stable. It's a little cheaper. And sometimes you can fry things to higher temperatures, and you can reuse the oil more often. All of those are good reasons for getting rid of it. There are plenty of substitutes.

Will taking it out make my French fries taste different?

We're not talking about taste. All frying oils taste the same, except for olive oil. If you were going to do a taste test between soy oil and canola oil, you think people could tell the difference? You can tell if it's olive oil, but that's about the only one that has any flavor.

Will banning trans fat in restaurants have an impact on the overall health of the people of New York?

Who knows? I don't have any idea. It's not going to do anything about obesity, and in that sense this is what I would call a "calorie distractor." The food will have exactly the same number of calories. There are predictions that this will save 300 lives a year of people who are at risk of heart disease. I have no idea whether that's true or not. But it's a health measure that the public doesn't have to worry about. They don't have to think about it. They can just go and eat fried food. Is that going to encourage them to eat fried foods? I hope not.

Will diners think that fried restaurant food is healthier than it is because it is now trans-fat free?

Probably. That's been the experience with health claims on food packages: "Ooh! It doesn't have any trans fat, so it doesn't have as many calories!" That would be a false interpretation. It might have a small effect in reducing my risk for heart disease. How small, how big -- nobody knows. But trans fat is something that is completely unnecessary in the food supply. Saturated fats are a normal part of the fats that are in plants and animals. This is removing something that never should have been in the food supply.

Does banning trans fat do anything to help fight the obesity epidemic?

Nothing whatsoever. Zilch. What it may do is help people reduce their risk of heart disease, which is still the No. 1 cause of death.

Why should the city be allowed to tell people what they can eat?

This is a city that has already banned smoking in bars. Smoking is demonstrably harmful. The bar owners complained, the restaurant owners complained, everybody got really upset, and guess what? People are still going to restaurants and bars, and in fact consumer behavior is up, because people stay there longer and find it more pleasant.

This is a situation in which you have a demonstrably harmful substance that eliminating will make absolutely no difference whatsoever to anybody's experience. Why wouldn't the city want to get rid of something that's harmful? It won't taste any different. It won't cost any more. Nobody will notice it. It's a question of whether the fats are hydrogenated or not. When they went around and talked to restaurant owners about getting rid of the hydrogenated cooking oils, first of all 80 percent of them didn't have a clue as to what was being talked about. They don't have any idea. Nobody has any idea about this. They just have an oil that they're using for cooking. So, they can use another oil for cooking.

I don't understand what the big deal is, I really don't. [Trans fat] should have been out of the food supply a long time ago, and this is just moving it along. To raise this as an issue of consumer freedom seems to me to be patently absurd. It's not as if the taste of the stuff is going to change. The restaurateurs who have already made the changes say it's not financially any different. They just have to get a different supply of oil. So what?

People have to wear seat belts. You can't smoke on airplanes. This is in the same category, but this is one that nobody is going to notice. Because it makes absolutely no difference, except to health. And it's the best kind of public health intervention, because it's one that people don't have to think about.

The New York Board of Public Health has also passed a measure requiring chain restaurants to label the calories in food on menu boards. What impact do you think it will have if people are looking at calorie counts when they order meals?

That one hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as the trans-fat ban, perhaps because it applies to a much smaller sector of restaurant. It really only applies to fast-food restaurants, like McDonald's, Wendy's, Subway and Starbucks. These are companies that already voluntarily have nutrition information available. Boy, are they going to be sorry that they volunteered for that! Now they have the information available, but you have to search for it. You have to go online, or you have to pick up the brochure.

I think it would be interesting for consumers to find out how many calories are in these foods. They would be amazed.

So do you think that putting calories on menu boards will help fight obesity?

It could. What you want is for people to have some sort of sense of what a calorie is. Mind you, this is not easy. Energy is very abstract. You can't see it, feel it or taste it. Once you get the idea that you can have between 2,000 and 3,000 calories a day, then if you're buying a Starbucks drink, and it has 1,500 calories, that's half your calories for the day. That would be good for people to know. It also would be very good for people to understand the relationship between calories and portion size, understand that the larger serving will come with more calories. This is a first public attempt to try to educate the public about calories in a meaningful way.

What all of the research is showing now is that people eat what's in front of them. And you don't have to go beyond portion size to explain why people are gaining weight. It's a sufficient explanation. Whether the kinds of people who go to McDonald's or Burger King or whatever are concerned about weight, I don't know, but I think that Starbucks people are. Who goes to Starbucks? People with enough money to pay for it; these are people with money and education and some healthy consciousness that goes with it.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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