July 25, 2008 — -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made it official: California will be the first trans-fat free state in the nation.
All-natural palm, rice and soybean oils will soon be king, and life in the Golden State will be forever altered.
The California legislature pushed the bill through last week, and Schwarzenegger signed it into law Friday, July 25.
The ban will require food providers to begin phasing out trans fat oils by July 1, 2009. Thereafter, noncompliance with the ban will result in fines of up to $1,000.
Trans unsaturated fatty acids are the partially hydrogenated oils that result from a chemical process producing solid fats with a longer shelf life.
These so-called "trans fats" were once thought to be healthier than butter, but research in the last decade has shown that they are much more harmful to health than had been believed. According to the American Heart Association, trans unsaturated fatty acids are medically proven to increase the risk of coronary heart disease by raising bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and reducing good cholesterol levels (HDL).
With more than half a million Americans dying each year from heart disease, the switch may be coming not a moment too soon.
This ban comes on the heels of the New York City's prohibition on trans fats in restaurants, which took full effect on July 1. But the wheels began turning in California before the Big Apple's eateries sought substitutes for their deep fryers.
Tiburon, a northern California town of about 8,700 people, has boasted trans fat-free restaurants since 2004. All 18 restaurants turned away, rather effortlessly and voluntarily, from partially hydrogenated oils at the urging of a lawyer, Steven Joseph, and his task force at bantransfats.com.
"The change has been very well received by our customers," said Carl Peschlow, owner of Sweden House Bakery in Tiburon. "Those so-called bad fats do, however, give our croissants a little oomph."
Peschlow said that while his bakery made the change relatively early, they still use a "tiny bit" of trans fat in their croissant recipe. Otherwise, Peschlow said, "the croissants just look like fat pancakes."
When New York City turned its attention to trans fats, they looked to Joseph's Project Tiburon for guidance. Joseph, a California transplant from Washington D.C., also led the fight against Kraft in 2003, asking the food giant to "cease and desist marketing and selling Oreo cookies to children in the State of California" until the popular chocolate sandwich cookie contained zero trans fats.
Kraft caved and has since become a leader in the industry, reducing or eliminating trans fats in 650 of its products. "Clearly that's what people wanted and that's what they care about," said Susan Davison, Kraft's director of corporate affairs.
Joseph and his team also prompted McDonalds to re-think its use of trans fats, and today Wendy's has gone completely trans fat-free. (California staple In-N-Out Burger has never used trans fats since opening in 1948.)
The California Restaurant Association along with other organizations has led the charge against the ban, claiming that many restaurants are making the shift without the government's help.
Chains including Taco Bell, Denny's, Burger King, Olive Garden, El Pollo Loco and Red Lobster have voluntarily pledged to fully or partially eliminate trans fats in their kitchens.
However, there are still fast food chains that haven't quite caught the sans-trans fever.
Carls Jr., for one, pledged to eliminate all trans fats by January 1, 2008, but as of July 16, 2008 hasn't followed through in all locations. A spokesperson for the company told ABCNews.com that by November 2008, all restaurants should be using trans fat-free oils.
And some restaurants, like KFC and Popeye's, have gone partway, eliminating trans fats from all but the biggest and juiciest of options.
KFC's chicken and biscuit bowl tips the scale at 870 calories, and is one of the few menu items with trans fats. Popeye's, meanwhile, boasts a 660-calorie-count chicken and sausage jambalaya with trans fats.
Bojangles, famous for its southern chicken and biscuits, has not done anything companywide to stop use of trans fats. They hope to do so in the future, but neither their Web site nor a spokesperson for the company gave ABCNews.com any additional nutritional information regarding trans fats.
Restaurants are not responsible for listing nutritional information on their menus, though several city and county ordinances have been proposed across the country.
Food packages on the other hand were required by the FDA as of January 1, 2006, to list trans fats on the nutrition facts label, an announcement that thrust trans fats into the spot light.
For many doctors, the dishes that weigh in at many hundreds of calories really shouldn't be consumed in the first place.
"Perhaps the biggest issue," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate professor in the Pediatrics Department at Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, "is how much of the foods do we even need to be eating? Is this going to change obesity? No, because you're swapping out one fat for another, the calories are the same. Would it be more beneficial for our hearts? Maybe."
Ayoob described the ban as a positive, albeit small, step.
Madelyn Fernstrom, associate professor and director of the University of Pittsburgh Weight Management Center, reiterated that the focus needs to be on the actual food.
"A better message is eat less fat of any type, and more fruits and vegetables," Fernstrom said.
Fernstrom, like Ayoob, does not see a huge advantage to banning trans fat.
"Doing something is better than nothing," she admitted. But she said she does not think the California ban will have any impact on residents' health.
Still, Dr. David Katz, ABC News medical contributor and associate director of the Nutrition Science, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, thinks the ban is right on track. Katz said that limiting trans fats is one of the best ways to lead a population to a healthier lifestyle.
"We don't ask people to screen their food for lead, or arsenic, or mercury. These are known toxins; we should be able to assume that known poisons are not put into our food," said Dr. Katz.
Dr. Katz maintained that as an artificial and harmful product linked to heart disease and diabetes, trans fats effectively mean slow death. "In this case, government regulation is pretty easy to justify," Dr. Katz added.
The CRA, however, along with the California Grocers Association, among others, feels the government is overstepping its boundaries, just a bit.
"This is problematic," said Jot Condie, president of the CRA. "We fear that this is a potentially slippery slope where the list could go on and on … and basically restaurants would be criminalized for having an ingredient in one of their recipes."
The CRA recently sued the City and County of San Francisco and the city's public health department over a law requiring menus to list nutritional information.
"Consumers are smart and restaurants are very smart and know what consumers want," said Condie, who deems the law entirely unnecessary.
Down south from the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles' south side is filled with unhealthy restaurant choices.
According to a study by the L.A. Times, 45 percent of the 900 restaurants in south L.A. are fast food joints, while only 16 percent of the Westside's 2,200 restaurants meet that description.
L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry has introduced a bill that would ban all future development of fast food chains in a 32 square-mile area of southern Los Angeles.
The bill aims to limit the fast food chains popping up on every L.A.street corner, and offers incentive packages to grocery stores to move into those neighborhoods.
Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy cited a study by the CCPHA which found that people living in neighborhoods with fast food and convenience stores have a 20 percent higher prevalence of obesity and 23 percent more diabetes than their counterparts living in more health-conscious neighborhoods.
While healthier restaurants are still sparse in southern L.A., healthier oils have become widespread.
Companies including Carolina Soy Product (CSP) of North Carolina, California Rice Oil of California and Loders Croklaan of Illinois offer up soy-based oil, rice oil and palm oil as healthful alternatives.
The demand for these substitutes has grown steadily in recent years, and CSP saw its profits double when New York City did away with trans fats.
Bob Dawson, chief operating officer for Carolina Soy Product, currently manages one satellite warehouse in California, but both eastern companies aim to expand westward in anticipation of future demand.
"I really felt like California would be ahead of the curve in terms of healthy eating," Dawson said of his interest to jump into the California market.
While most recognize that the California ban won't solve the problem overnight, at least it is getting the ball rolling.
"This is certainly not the mother of all nutrition issues," wrote Dr. Katz of Yale University, "there will be many other fish to fry (in healthful oil). But this is important and yes, all by itself it should help move the needle visibly."