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Trans fats in restaurants: The New York City experience

July 21, 2009 |  1:38 pm

In December 2006, New York City's Department of of Health and Mental Hygiene announced that heart-unhealthy artificial trans fats were to be phased out of restaurant foods in the city. (At least, to low levels -- less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving.)

Today's Annals of Internal Medicine has an interesting report on how the trans-fat removal went -- whether restaurants complied, whether the trans fats were replaced by extra saturated fats, whether it cost restaurants more, etc. (The above link takes you to the abstract of the article -- you have to pay to view the entire thing, though it will become available for free after six months.)

In the first phase, the man-made fats were to be removed from fry oils and spreads, and in the second phase, effective July 2008, trans fats were to also be removed from other items such as baked goods.

Here's one interesting fact: The health department at first tried a voluntary program and bolstered it with an extensive educational campaign: mailing 30,000 food outlets with information, training restaurant workers about the issue.

Before the educational campaign, the department found that about 50% of the restaurants it inspected used artificial trans fats in shortenings, oils, spreads, etc.

After the educational campaign -- it found (drumroll) ... pretty much no change at all.

That's when it decided to make a trans-fat rule.

The rule seems to have worked well, according to the report, in spite of objections from the restaurant industry. By November 2009, less than 2% of restaurants were out of compliance.

And it doesn't look as though foods are getting loaded up with saturated fat instead: Wendy's fries seem to have removed the trans fats and kept the saturated fat level the same. Before the rule, a small order of McDonald's fries contained 2.5 grams of saturated fat and 3.5 grams of trans fats. Now, after the rule, a small order of fries contains 1.5 grams of saturated fat -- i.e. less fat overall.

And this: "Restaurants that switched to newer fry oils with 0 grams of trans fat reported that the change was cost neutral. Supply concerns proved unfounded because major oil producers expanded production of oils with 0 grams of trans fat," the Annals report notes.

Here's a Bloomberg News article about the report.

And here's an earlier article we wrote about artificial trans fats -- which includes information about what they are and the medical evidence suggesting they're bad news, as well as efforts by food companies to remove them from products in the grocery store.

-- Rosie Mestel

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