First proposed on Sept. 26, the ban on using trans fats in restaurant cooking stirred up a hornets' nest of positive and negative reactions, as proponents lent vociferous support for the move -- going as far as to hold a rally across the street from where the proposal was considered in a public forum -- while opponents maintained that trans fats were not dangerous in the small amounts used in restaurants.
Originally, the proposal gave restaurants six months to switch to oils, margarines and shortening that contain less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving, and 18 months to serve foods containing the same amount. Some felt that deadline was unrealistic, so the final ban requires restaurants to stop using trans fat cooking oils by July and then stop serving any foods containing trans fats by July 2008. The American Heart Association warned that giving restaurants too little time to make the switch could cause them to return to oils high in saturated fats, which are considered less harmful than trans fats, but can still increase the risk of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to transform them to solid fats, usually in order to increase a product's shelf life, and are found in processed foods like pizza dough, cookies and pre-made pancake mix. According to FDA figures, the average American consumes 4.7 pounds of trans fats annually. Health advocates are celebrating the NYC ban because studies have shown that less than 5 grams a day of trans fats can raise heart disease risk by as much as 25 percent through the increase of LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and the simultaneous reduction of HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
"This is a great victory for the health of New York citizens," said Mike Adams, author of the books, "Poison in the Food: Hydrogenated Oils" and Grocery Warning." "It sends a powerful message to fast food restaurants and food producers, warning them that we will no longer look the other way when it comes to dangerous, health-harming food ingredients."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg assured citizens that no one was trying to take away french fries and hamburgers.
"I love those things, too," he said. "But if you can make them with something that is less damaging to your health, we should do that."
Some food makers and major restaurant chains such as KFC and Wendy's preempted the ban and voluntarily discontinued the use of trans fats after the FDA began requiring it be listed on food labels. McDonald's Corp. reported that it has been experimenting with healthier oils, but has not made a final switch yet. Other food makers and restaurant chains are upset over the ban because it means they must change food recopies, interrupt their supply operations, and spend money and time trying to convince customers that their foods will not suffer for the change.
If Denmark is anything to go by, the latter issue should not cause much of a problem. The Danish government banned trans fats from its restaurants more than two years ago, and an Associated Press interview of some citizens and lawmakers there found that few people felt foods were less tasty because of the ban.
The idea is gaining momentum in other U.S. cities as well, as Chicago announced it was considering its own trans fat law. Under this regulation, trans fats would not be totally banned, but the levels that restaurants are authorized to use would be severely restricted. Also, only the large restaurants, making more than $20 million a year in sales, would be subject to the restriction.