New York City Wants to Limit Trans Fats

New York City has taken a bold step in the fight against obesity and heart disease. Today the New York City Department of Health announced a proposal to limit all trans fats from New York restaurants. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 30.

It also announced that all restaurants that list nutritional information must include calories.

Trans fats are found in many types of cooking oils used in the preparation of doughnuts, french fries and pastries. The Food and Drug Administration has required that food labels list trans fats since Jan. 1, 2006. Trans fats include margarine, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening and shortening.

New York had already instituted a voluntary limit on trans fats, but 30 to 60 percent of restaurants in the city refused to make the switch.

New York is the first city to make the limit citywide, but Chicago is also considering the measure. The only other large limit is in North Carolina, where trans fats have been limited from all school foods.

Trans fats have been linked to elevated cholesterol and to an increased risk of heart disease.

"This is an extremely important step for public health," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "If implemented nationwide, a limit on partially hydrogenated fats -- trans fats -- could save an estimated 50,000 lives a year."

Though experts generally support the proposal, not all believe the impact will be so large, and some worry that we may be trading one evil for another.

"We must treat this proposal with a tremendous amount of caution," said Alice Lichtenstein, professor of science and policy at Tufts University. "I am very concerned that trans fats will just be replaced by saturated fats.

Saturated fats are found in animal products, including meat and dairy products, and raise almost the same health concerns as trans fats.

Jacobson believes the move away from trans fats needs to be gradual, as the supply of alternatives may not meet the demand of all the restaurants that use trans fats.

"It will be easy for small companies to make the change," said Jacobson, "but large corporations, such as McDonald's, may have a difficult time finding enough of the other oils initially."

Many people may not even know they are eating foods containing trans fats. "It's not a matter of choice. People aren't even aware that they are eating trans fats," said Jacobson. "If people were given a choice and knew what was in their food, they definitely would not pick foods containing trans fats."

Though Lichtenstein believes the limit is a good step, she also believes that much more needs to be considered when improving dietary health.

"Getting rid of trans fats is great, but until we get a hold on our calorie intake, we will never achieve the full potential of these recommendations," said Lichtenstein. "We can't just look at one component."