Harvard Public Health Review Winter 2007
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transfat wagon

Kent Dayton/HSPH

The recent passage of a ban in New York City restaurants on heart-damaging trans fats has touched off a seismic shift in the food industry—not just in the Big Apple, but across the country. Restaurants from McDonald’s to The Pump Room and Chez Panisse are changing how they prepare the meals we eat, whether on the run or on those most special of occasions.

Labels reading “Contains 0% trans fat” and “Trans fat free!” are already a familiar sight on U.S. grocery shelves, thanks to a federal law that took effect January 1, 2006, requiring that trans fat content be clearly marked on all commercially-packaged food products.

But with the new ban, New York’s restaurants must eliminate trans fats from all meals cooked on the premises by July 1, 2007. And by July 1 next year, they must purge these fats from all products purchased from outside vendors, including pre-baked desserts, crackers, and frozen French fries.

Riding the wave
The wave towards eliminating trans fats from all foods stems largely from research at the Harvard School of Public Health, which since the 1990s has linked these fats to heart and artery disease. According to HSPH’s Walter Willett, the Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the School’s Department of Nutrition, new regulations should significantly curb rates of heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, and other problems. “We estimate that if we replaced all the trans fats in the American diet with polyunsaturated fats from vegetable sources, we could reduce the national risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 40 percent,” Willett says.

Because New York City is such a large market, its ban has sent shock waves from the east coast to the west. In February, Philadelphia announced a similar ban. Since then, dozens more cities, towns, and states from New Hampshire to California have enacted or are considering bans.

Meanwhile, food manufacturers, suppliers, and restaurant chains are voluntarily excluding or removing trans fats from products rather than risk losing sales. The food-service operators Sodexho and Aramark are working to banish trans fats from the hundreds of college and university dining halls they serve, for example. And dozens of fast-food and restaurant chains, including Denny’s and Starbucks, are following suit.

Why target restaurants?

Restaurants take a huge bite out of Americans’ budgets. About 49 percent of every U.S. food dollar is spent on food eaten outside the home, including take-out meals, according to researchers at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science, in Medford, Massachusetts. Between the 1970s and the mid-1990s, restaurant dining increased from 18 percent to 32 percent of Americans’ total caloric intake.

As a practical matter, how hard will it be for restaurants to serve up trans-fat-free meals? Will consumers see dining costs jump? How can regulations like New York City’s be enforced?

Willett says restaurants have long favored trans fat oil—oils that are “partially hydrogenated” and thus solid or semi-solid at room temperature—for deep frying, and for their ability to prolong the shelf life of purchased baked goods. “Choosing alternatives is the first step restaurants must take toward going trans fat free,” he says. “Baking or buying goods made with liquid oils—or, if solid fats are required to achieve a certain taste and consistency, butter, lard, or palm oil—is the other big change they should make.”

While butter and dairy products contain some naturally occurring trans fat, the amounts are negligible, Willett notes. The bulk of calories in butter and dairy foods actually come from saturated fat—bad for the heart and blood vessels, but a lesser evil than trans fat. Healthier alternatives by far are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, derived from vegetable sources (see graph).
As for how the trans fat ban will be enforced, that remains to be seen.

“Inspectors can examine kitchen containers and check dumpsters,” Willett notes. “Food analyses can be done, but they’re expensive and shouldn’t be necessary.” In Denmark, which banned trans fats in 2004, “jail terms can be meted out,” Willett says with a smile. “But to the best of my knowledge, that hasn’t happened yet.”

Roger Berkowitz is president of Legal Sea Foods, a Boston-based chain that includes 34 restaurants in eight states and the District of Columbia. A longtime member of HSPH’s volunteer Nutrition Round Table, he says Legal went trans-fat-free several years ago, and that the costs were not that significant. “Over time, the costs of replacement oils and products will go down as demand for them goes way up,” he predicts.

Meanwhile, consumers can push for more trans-fat-free products. They can also check labels for the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” code for “trans fat,” Willett says. Federal rules allow manufacturers to claim zero percent for products containing less than 0.5 grams. “Avoid overindulging in these foods,” Willett urges. “Be an informed consumer.”

To learn more about trans fats and steps restaurants are taking to take them off the menu, access an online presentation by Walter Willett and Roger Berkowitz at www.hsph.harvard.edu/corprelations.

Julie Rafferty is senior director of marketing and planning for the Office of Resource Development at HSPH.

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