NYC bans most trans fats

Restaurants get up to 18 months to comply

December 06, 2006|By Ellen Barry | Ellen Barry,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- The New York City Board of Health voted unanimously yesterday to prohibit restaurateurs from cooking with artificial trans fats, setting a precedent for public health agencies eager to take on unhealthful eating.

The city's 24,000 restaurants have six months to stop frying foods in oils that contain high levels of trans fats, which are believed to be a leading cause of heart disease. Within 18 months, they must switch to alternative ways of cooking pie crusts, doughnuts and other baked goods - or face fines for each violation.

Though various local and state lawmakers have floated the idea of forcing trans fats from American diets, New York's approach has been notably muscular, driven by an activist health commissioner, Thomas Frieden. City health officials said they tried to persuade restaurateurs to abandon the products voluntarily, but the effort failed.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about New York City's ban on trans fats in restaurants reversed the definitions of two types of cholesterol. Trans fat raises the amount of LDL, which some doctors call "bad" blood cholesterol, and lowers the amount of HDL or "good" blood cholesterol. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

"There is nothing like a deadline to focus the mind," Frieden said after the vote. Answering critics, he said the board is not "telling people what to eat."

"All of the food items will be available; they just won't have an artificial chemical in them that would increase your chance of heart attack, stroke or death," he said.

New York's ban marks a turning point for products that were introduced into the American diet in the early 1900s. Crisco was one of the first products made with a process called "hydrogenation," which solidifies liquid vegetable oil. Hydrogenated oils grew in popularity over the course of the century and were recommended as a healthier alternative to saturated fats such as butter.

The consensus began to shift in the late 1980s, when researchers found that trans fats lower the amount of LDL, or "good" blood cholesterol, and increase HDL, or "bad" cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends a daily intake of no more than 2 to 2.5 grams of trans fats, less than a quarter of what is contained in an average fast-food meal.

In 2003, Denmark passed a law sharply limiting the use of trans fats, and Tiburon, Calif., followed suit a year later. But elected officials in Chicago and New Jersey met with resistance - and even ridicule - when they proposed similar measures. State Sen. Ellen Karcher, who proposed the New Jersey measure in October, received so many angry calls and letters that she temporarily closed her office.

"What happened in New Jersey was really out of control," she said. "We're talking about cooking oil here."

For advocates of a wider ban, yesterday's vote in New York was wonderful news. The next city to ban trans fats "could be L.A., could be Seattle, could be Miami, could be Chicago," said Stephen Joseph, an attorney who spearheaded the Tiburon effort.

Restaurant industry representatives said they were deeply disappointed at the outcome. Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said health officials made only a token effort to educate business owners about trans fats in the first place. The ban could force owners to raise prices or go out of business, he said.

"The places that are going to be hurt are the small places, the mom-and-pop restaurant in Queens with four employees and 15 seats," Hunt said. "They're going to pay the highest price."

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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