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NYC Bans Trans Fats in Restaurants

By Walter Armstrong

The Big Apple is the first city in the U.S. to ban restaurants from serving trans fats—not to be confused with fat trannies. These artificial fats, made from hydrogenated vegetable oils and found in margarine, Crisco, and other cooking products, have been conclusively linked to heart disease, America’s number-one killer. The health board also OK’d a second measure requiring fast-food venues to display the calorie content of every item it serves on a menu board.

The city’s fats slapdown was voted by the board of health on Tuesday, following a full-court press by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden. The mayor, widely respected as fair, independent, and effective, fought for and won a much more controversial ban on smoking soon after taking office in 2002. Many opponents of the cigarette snub argued that New York nightlife would go down the toilet, but the ban has proved to be a success, upping both the health and the wealth of the city.

Although trans fats are not as hazardous to your heart as smoking, cardio experts agree the chemically treated fats present a serious danger and no benefits whatsoever. They raise your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol, clogging your arteries and raising your risk of heart disease. Restaurants favor them, however, because they’re cheap, don’t turn rancid and have an unnaturally high melting point—perfect for fast-food frying.

Although apparently a no-brainer, the trans ban has drawn its share of hecklers, such as hard-core libertarians and, of course, Fox News. The restaurant industry is also up in arms, since the law will, as the New York Times put it, “radically transform the way food is prepared in thousands of restaurants, from McDonald’s to fashionable bistros to Chinese take-outs.” Dan Flesher, a National Restaurant Association rep, told the Times, “This is a misguided attempt at social engineering by a group of physicians who don’t understand the restaurant industry,” adding that he expected the ban to be challenged in court.

“To raise this as an issue of consumer freedom seems absurd,” Marion Nestle, a professor of food science at New York University, told Salon.com. “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?”

So what indeed. The feds passed a law in 2004 requiring that all packaged food containing trans fats fess up to that fact in the nutritional label. Anticipating a bad rap from the bad wrap, many manufacturers simply substituted healthier—or at least less unhealthy—oils. Since the label law took effect last January, Wendy’s has gone trans-free, and KFC says it will follow suit next April.

An anti-trans trend is clearly has momentum. “New York City has set a national standard,” Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, told the paper of record. Officials in Chicago and Washington, D.C. have already pledged to ban the fake fats.

Professor Nestle predicts that no one will miss trans fats because French fries and doughnuts taste just as good when cooked in boiling vats of vegetable oil that has not been chemically altered. The real question is, will big signs with calorie counts staring you in the face as you scarf your Big Mac (560 calories, 31 grams of fat)?