Question of the Week

October 30, 2006


Last month (September 2006), The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a press release which included:

"Artificial trans fat is an unnecessary and dangerous ingredient in food. The Health Department is proposing that restaurants remove most artificial trans fats from their cooking over an 18-month period. 'New Yorkers are consuming a hazardous, artificial substance without their knowledge or consent,' Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden said. 'Trans fat causes heart disease. Like lead in paint, artificial trans fat in food is invisible and dangerous, and it can be replaced. While it may take some effort, restaurants can replace trans fat without changing the taste or cost of food. No one will miss it when it's gone.' ... This proposal allows restaurants six months to switch to oils, margarines and shortening that have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. After 18 months, all other food items would need to contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Packaged food items still in the manufacturer's original packaging when served would be exempt."

No one is arguing that trans fat is a healthy addition to a person's diet, and no one is arguing that it is the only unhealthy component of the foods in which it is found.

"There are plenty of things in Kentucky Fried Chicken that are bad for your health -- cholesterol, saturated fat and salt, to name a few. But only one has the potential to get the colonel's recipe banned in New York City. That ingredient is artificial trans fatty acids, which are so common that the average American eats 4.7 pounds per year, according to the Food and Drug Administration. City health officials say these so-called trans fats are so unhealthy they belong in the same category as food spoiled by rodent droppings. ... "

After seeing trans fat compared to lead paint and rodent droppings, some might not understand why it is still used.

"What is Trans Fat? Basically, trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil--a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing these fats. Trans fat can be found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Unlike other fats, the majority of trans fat is formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine. A small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some animal-based foods."

While restaurants may like the benefits they get from using trans fat, The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been trying to get changes made without legislation.

"The Health Department conducted a year-long education campaign to help restaurants voluntarily reduce trans fat. Information was provided to every restaurant in New York City and training was provided to help restaurants and food suppliers make the change. Restaurants were surveyed before and after the campaign. While some restaurants reduced or stopped using artificial trans fat, overall use did not decline at all. In restaurants where it could be determined whether trans fat was used, half used it in oils or spreads both before and after the year-long campaign. A year after this voluntary effort, New Yorkers are still being exposed to high levels of dangerous trans fat."

Trans fat does not just affect those in New York, but efforts made by those in this major city will effect diners nationally. National chains who want to continue to do business in New York will most likely make national changes.

"KFC Corp.'s announcement that it will switch to a trans fat-free cooking oil by the end of April [2007] is likely to add fuel to the fire consumer groups have been trying to light under McDonald's Corp. to do the same. McDonald's first announced efforts to switch to a cooking oil with reduced levels of trans fat in September 2002 but five months later admitted it was having trouble introducing healthier fries that tasted as good as the ones made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which produces trans fatty acids, or trans fat for short. ... Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, applauded KFC's announcement to switch to a low linolenic soybean oil with no trans fat in all 5,500 of its U.S. restaurants."

One fast food restaurant is removing the trans fat (but not the salt, cholesterol, or saturated fat) from its menu. For those around the country bans put into place to increase the likelihood of consumers making healthy choices, this may not be enough. For those consumers who do not want changes made to their food choices, the response is yet to be determined.

When asked about the proposed New York City ban on trans fat,

"New Jersey state Sen. Ellen Karcher, D-Monmouth, Mercer, said her office was flooded with threatening phone calls after she proposed a similar trans fat ban in early October. A proposed ban in Chicago was ridiculed by some as government paternalism run amok. Dr. Leslie Cho, medical director for preventative cardiology and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic, said people might be less upset if they knew how bad trans fats are for the body."

Whatever action a government agency takes, it is the consumers who drive the market. As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply.

"A new fast food is making its debut at US fairs this fall - fried Coke. Abel Gonzales, 36, a computer analyst from Dallas, tried about 15 different varieties before coming up with his perfect recipe - a batter mix made with Coca-Cola syrup, a drizzle of strawberry syrup, and some strawberries. Balls of the batter are then deep-fried, ending up like ping-pong ball sized doughnuts which are then served in a cup, topped with Coca-Cola syrup, whipped cream, cinnamon sugar and a cherry on the top. ... Gonzales ran two stands at the State Fair of Texas and sold up to 35,000 fried Cokes over 24 days for $US4.50 ($NZ7) each - and won a prize for coming up with "most creative" new fair food.",2106,3841613a7773,00.html

As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply.

Questions of the Week:
What can consumers do to improve the quality of the choices they are given? As a consumer in the current market, what can you do to improve the quality of food in your own diet? When eating out, how can you know if the foods you are eating contain trans fat or other unhealthy hidden ingredients? What role should the government play (if any) to make it more difficult to obtain unhealthier food choices?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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