Less Than 2% of Restaurants Using Trans Fat in New York City

July 21, 2009

July 21, 2009 (New York, New York) — An estimated 98% of restaurants in New York City are no longer using artificial trans fat in oils, shortening, and spreads, reports the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in a perspective on the implementation and short-term results of the city's ban on trans-fatty acids [1].

Comparatively, surveys performed before the ban showed that 50% of restaurants were using the artificial fat linked with high cholesterol and coronary heart disease. In addition, researchers report the ban has also reduced the use of saturated fats in meals.

"Artificial trans fat--a recognized contributor to coronary heart disease risk--is widespread in our food supply and, at the time of the department's action, was virtually impossible for the average consumer to avoid," write Dr Sonia Angell (New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NY) and colleagues in the July 21, 2009 Annals of Internal Medicine. "An effective way to reduce this risk was to change the food supply through regulation."

Two-Phase Ban That Started in 2007

As previously reported by heartwire , the ban on trans-fatty acids, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, was proposed as an amendment to the New York City health code and passed in December 2006. Under the approved ban, restaurants had until July 1, 2007 to switch to oils, margarine, and shortening with less than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving and until July 1, 2008 to eliminate trans fat from all other foods. The plan affected approximately 24 000 establishments, ranging from McDonald's and Burger King to bistros and neighborhood delis.

As Angell and colleagues report, 98% of all restaurants have adapted to the first phase, which is essentially a fry-oil and spread restriction, based on the adjusted results of survey undertaken in November 2008. The department also tracked the use of saturated fat as implementation of the trans-fat ban proceeded and reports that many restaurant chains reduced the use of saturated fat by 20% to 35%. Fast-food chains, including McDonald's, Wendy's, Arby's, and White Castle, have decreased the use of saturated fat in French fries by 10.5%.

The fine in NYC for failing to adhere to the restriction ranges from $200 to $2000. Two years after the ban, which began with an extensive education campaign, including abandoning terms such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and trans-fatty acids with more accessible terms such as artificial trans fat, 12 local governments in the US have adopted similar measures. In addition, more than 50 restaurant chains have announced they will discontinue use of trans-fat–containing products nationally, as have hotel groups and food manufacturers.

"[Trans fat] is present only because we fail to prevent industry from using it, even as we recommend that consumers avoid it," state department officials. "Removing trans fat from the food supply will improve the lipid profiles of millions of persons without requiring complex behavioral efforts and may reduce the need for regulation. Although regulatory approaches are not appropriate for all health risks, our society could improve health if available food choices more closely resembled those recommended for heart health."

More Needs to Be Learned

In an editorial accompanying the report, Dr Julie Gerberding, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, notes that disagreements over the role of government are central to the debate surrounding trans-fat policies [2]. While government intervention might run counter to US "libertarian traditions," relying on individuals to make healthy choices about food has not worked as a strategy, especially when understanding fats, cholesterol, and their interrelated health effects can be challenging even to trained professionals, she writes.

Gerberding notes that, gram for gram, trans fats are more potent than saturated fats in increasing the risk for heart disease, and if exposure is eliminated approximately 30 000 to 100 000 US deaths related to heart disease could be prevented each year. Still, pushing too fast for a widespread national ban without a substitute that could safely replace the 9 billion pounds of hydrogenated fats used annually in the US could do more harm than good, especially if restaurants and manufacturers resort to products high in saturated fats.

"Right now, the highest priority should be to learn as much as possible about the health benefits and unintended consequences of restricting trans fats and building public confidence in the interventions already under way in New York, Tiburon [CA], Denmark, and elsewhere, so that emerging policies can reflect the best science and the best available public-health practices," writes Gerberding.

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