Ban Trans Fats? Fuggetaboutit!
There Are Better Ways To Get the Public To Change Eating Habits
JunkScience.com called the New York City Board of Health's recent ban on the use of vegetable oils containing high levels of trans fatty acids (trans fats or TFAs) in restaurants as its second-ranked Top Junk Science Moment for 2006. The American Heart Association, which has long cautioned that trans fats are bad for your heart, said that a ban on TFA's "may not be the best course of proposed action." Still, over 60 percent of New York City's restaurant patrons support the ban.
As everyone knows by now, the New York City Board of Health voted in December to make New York the first city in the United States to ban the use of artificial trans fats at restaurants, prohibiting more than 20,000 restaurants in the city from serving food containing more than minute amounts. The ban takes effect in July 2007 for frying oils, and July 2008 for other ingredients. The outright ban came after New York health officials spent 2005 and 2006 unsuccessfully pressuring restaurants to cut down voluntarily on trans fats.
Reaction Is Mixed
Reaction to the ban was swift and varied. The American Diabetes Association applauded the ban, noting, "For the more than 700,000 New York City adults diagnosed with diabetes, this proposal will eliminate a major source of artificial trans fats and can hopefully serve as a model for other cities to consider." A nutritionist called the ban a "bold, forward-thinking prohibition that will benefit the millions of New York City restaurant patrons."
Others worry that people may believe that food such as fried chicken is actually a healthy food option due to the use of lower TFA oils. The American Heart Association warned that restaurants might revert to using other unhealthy oils if low TFA oils are in short supply. One doctor noted that no one knows the full effects of the chemical modifications made to eliminate trans fats. And the Center for Consumer Freedom ran full-page ads in several newspapers, sarcastically stating, "Let's get rid of New York-style pizza (seriously, do you need all that cheese?), beef hot dogs (tofu dogs almost taste the same), corned beef (turkey breast is much leaner), and coffee (tea is probably better for you)." The ad concluded, "This ban is an assault on consumer freedom and sets a truly dangerous precedent."
Why All the Fuss?
Why the fuss over trans fats? TFAs are formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to create a solid (a process called "hydrogenation"). TFAs occur in significant amounts in foods such as margarine, baked crackers, biscuits, cookies, fish sticks, and french fries, but occur only in insignificant levels in natural foods. They have been implicated in diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Scientific evidence links high consumption of TFAs to higher levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, as well as to increased risks of diabetes and colon cancer.
The typical American consumes approximately 5.8 grams of TFAs a day. The Japanese consume approximately 1.6 grams a day. The FDA has not established a daily maximum for trans fats; rather, it recommends consuming TFAs as rarely as possible, while recognizing that eliminating TFAs altogether may be impossible. The FDA instituted labeling requirements for TFAs in foods in 2006 and estimated that labeling foods with TFA information and reformulating products would cost between $400 million and $850 million. But, it says, health-care costs saved over 20 years would be between $25 billion and $59 billion.
The change from partially hydrogenated oils to high stability oils such as canola oil, mid-oleic and high oleic sunflower oils, or other non-hydrogenated fats and oils, may be difficult.
What It Will Take to Replace TFAs
Although many health-conscious chefs in New York already had shunned trans fats and voluntarily switched to non-hydrogenated oils, the ban is causing a scramble to replace hydrogenated oils with new products. Currently, from 30 to 60 percent of New York City's 20,000 restaurants used partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in their foods. The major consumer markets also will require reliable and significant sources of trans fat-free products, and trans fat replacements must be price competitive. However, the technology used to create low TFA oils, such as interesterification or modified partial hydrogenation, may be costly.
The hydrogenation process for oils is being modified at some companies, such as Englehard and Johnson Matthey. Some stable oils and fats are currently available, such as high oleic canola oil, expeller expressed soybean oil, corn oil, or palm oils. Low linolenic or high stearic soybean oils and high stearic canola oils are expected to be available in the future. The availability of low linolenic soybeans such as Nutrium, from Du Pont, or Vistive, from Monsanto, is expected to increase over the next five years. New oil and shortening products with low or no trans fats include Nova Lipid, a line of oils and shortenings from Archer Daniels Midland; the shortening Vream RightT from Bunge; Whole Harvest oil; Novozyme's Lipozyme TL IM; Aarhus Karlshamn's non-hydrogenated fat and oil lines; Nexera oils, by Dow Agrosciences; and Restaurant Technologies' RTI Max-Life TM ZERO T LL oil.
On the consumer side, J.M. Smucker Co., announced in late January that it had finally perfected a reformulation for Crisco after nearly five years of experimenting. It releases a version in 2004 that wasn't as creamy and left pie crusts tough, a common occurence when trans fats are removed. The company said it took so long to get it right because it had to find the proper combination of soy and cottonseed oils that wouldn't raise saturated fat levels. Even so, the incredients label lists partially hydrogenated oil, which federal rules say is okay if trans fats constitute less than a half gram per serving.
About the same time, McDonald's, announced that 1,200 of its restaurants are switching to a new non-trans-fat oil developed from canola, soybean, and corn. The company hopes to have all its restaurants converted by 2008, depending on the crop supply and availability. McDonald's scientists had to find the right combination of oils to maintain its fries signature taste and texture, again illustrating that converting to trans-fat-free oils is no easy undertaking.
Others Consider TFA Bans
New York City is not the first to suggest limiting trans fats. Chicago almost became the first city to ban trans fat oils in restaurants, but efforts stalled. Other cities and the states of New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, are discussing banning TFAs in restaurants, too. And some restaurants chains have been working to eliminate or reduce TFAs, including Eat N'Park, Au Bon Pain, Fazoli's, Wendy's, Chili's Grill and Bar, Starbucks, Popeye's, and restaurants at the Disney theme parks.
With health care costs what they are, it is never a bad idea to limit foods that may cause problems. However, eliminating the opportunity for people to select what they eat can be a dangerous and scary prospect. Allowing restaurants to choose to ban trans fats—and allowing people to choose whether to eat at those restaurants—remains a healthier choice. Perhaps the resources would be better directed at educating the public about changing bad eating habits.
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