Tuesday, December 05, 2006

New York City Health Board Bans Trans Fats Today

Read the hot-off-the-press news about the Board of Health decision to, yup, ban transfats. You can read the AP's take here: City Health Board Bans Trans Fats. --Anna

This is what I wrote the day after I participated in the public testimony and public rally in support of the decision:


BROOKLYN, NY -- If it passes, the resolution discussed by a broad swath of New Yorkers in testimony to the Board of Health today would be only the second in the nation to ban trans fats in city restaurants. Tiburon on San Francisco Bay – a slightly smaller metropolis – beat the Big Apple to it in 2004. (The other NYC Board of Health proposal on the table would require chain restaurants to post calorie content.)

While a snaking line of more than seventy-five passed through the Health Department’s security on their way to the hearing, I overhead a woman explaining: “You can find trans fats in Parkay, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, in most cookies...” Her list went on and on. Trans fats—as the woman, who later testified as a prominent public health advocate, was trying to convey—are everywhere.

It didn’t used to be this way. Trans fats were developed in the 1940s, in a process through which vegetable oil is hydrogenated, converting unsaturated fatty acids into saturated ones. (See “partially hydrogenated” on an ingredients list? That’s trans fats). In processed foods, trans fats replace naturally occurring solid fats like butter and liquid oils.

Trans fats became instantly popular with industry because with them products could sit on shelves longer. The other winning element? They can be less expensive than other fats traditionally used in baking. By the 1960s trans fats had become ubiquitous in baked products and fast foods. They’ve been with us ever since.

Today, most of our dietary trans fats intake comes in the form of cakes, cookies, crackers, and bread as well as French fries, potato chips and popcorn.
So what’s the problem? For several decades the evidence has been accumulating. The results are pretty damning.
Testifying at the public hearing, Dr. Walter Willett, whose team at the Harvard School of Public Health has been at the leading edge of this research, reminded the council members, the TV news crews, and the hundreds gathered that trans fats are known to increase coronary heart disease. As even the FDA acknowledges, consumption of trans fat raises low-density lipoprotein, or "bad cholesterol," levels, which increases the risk of the disease. Based on more than two decades in a study with more than 200,000 participants, Willett and his colleagues estimate that trans fat consumption is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths annually from coronary heart disease.
In a recent report from The Netherlands, researchers suggest that eliminating trans fats in the U.S. could avert between 72,000 and 228,000 coronary heart “events” – as they call them – each year.

In his testimony, Willett’s colleague Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian added that trans fats increase inflammation--a risk factor for diabetes, among other ailments--and are linked to weight gain. Even more troubling are findings that even very low levels of consumption can lead to higher risk: consuming just 5 grams of trans fat – that’s roughly 2 percent of your daily calories – can increase your risk of heart disease by 25 percent.[1] (It is precisely these health concerns that led Denmark in 2004 to ban trans fats use in the country).

As these studies show, the trouble with trans fats is now well-documented. There is no longer cause for debate, but this isn’t to say there’s no debate. Industry is still working overtime to confuse the public. Consider this claim on one industry-backed website, Trans Fat Facts: “Trans fats have been a staple in the American diet for decades. And during that time, American life expectancy has seen dramatic increases. In fact, it recently reached a record high.” It seems the authors missed the statistics lesson on causal relationships.

With all the sound science, maybe we should be asking why not ban trans fats? Today’s presenters and the hundreds who turned out for the hearing and the public rally organized by the volunteer-run Trans Fat Free NYC are asking just that.

At the hearing, seventy people were officially registered to speak, from a steely-voiced octogenarian, Florence Rice, president of the Harlem Consumer Education Council to a six year-old who asked the Board to please help her “stay healthy,” and “out of the hospital.” Of the 43 people I heard, the only ones opposed to the resolution were two representatives from restaurant associations and one woman, a founder of the anti-smoking ban organization C.L.A.S.H.

Their chorus? In part, the ban will be bad for business. They said that it would be impossible for businesses to comply; there’s simply not enough supply. They also warned that mom and pops would be hurt worst.

Brooklyn-born Ina “Breakfast Queen of Chicago” Pinkney and the “mom” of her Chicago-based restaurant, Ina’s, begs to differ. She voluntarily pulled trans fats with enthusiastic response from her customers, she explained in her testimony. Pinkney added that as a small business owner this kind of policy is exactly what she wants.

“We welcome these regulations,” she said. “It levels the playing field.”

The other complaint? It’s “Big Brother” all over again, just one more inch down the “slippery slope” toward a “food nanny” police state, at least that’s how Audrey Silk from C.L.A.S.H. put it. A FoxNews opinion piece about the ban posed the question this way: “Should the government regulate what we eat?”

But that’s actually not the question that the resolution really raises. Sure, the government shouldn’t dictate whether or not we can devour a Krispy Kreme donut. But the government most certainly should protect its citizens from unnecessary artificial added ingredients in our food--which are invisible to us, which are undetectable to our tongues, and which harm us. The government also must certainly protect children who are even less equipped to make informed choices about the food they eat.

Indeed, that is precisely what we expect our government to do. When we find out about contaminants in food that cause harm – take e. coli O157:H7 for instance – we expect the government to step in, and step in fast on the side of public health.

In a similar way, the proposed ban on trans fats isn’t regulating what we can or can’t eat; it is simply rids our food system of an ingredient that has been shown to cause thousands of premature deaths each year.

The proposed resolution is not a draconian Big Brother move. It’s government taking leadership to protect the public health. The question isn’t “Should the government regulate what we eat?” But, “Shouldn’t the government protect us from harm?” And the answer is, yes.

A corollary to the Big Brother grumble is that these bans limit “choice;” they are an affront on “freedom.” Wrote one commentator about these bans: they’re a “push to legally prevent individuals from having a French fry ‘their way.’”

But how many New Yorkers, or anyone else in the country for that matter, asked for trans fats? Or, even knows when they’re eating them? We, the consumer, didn’t demand trans fats. They were invented to increase shelf life of food products in order to increase profitability for the food industry.

Real choice and real food freedom means being able to eat out without worrying that the choice will be harmful to our health. This policy will help all New Yorkers do just that. And, if passed, the rest of the country might just take New York City’s lead.

* * *
During and after the public hearing, a crowd gathered in Thomas Paine Park across the street from the Health Department. Organized by the ad hoc, volunteer-led group, Trans Fat Free NYC, the rally featured speakers, including council member Peter F. Vallone, Jr., Dr. Walter Willett from the Harvard School of Public Health, Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and yours truly. Restaurateurs also spoke about their decision to go trans fat free and Whole Harvest oils presented about their affordable, healthy non-trans fat products.

As people mingled among trans fat free fried treats and a gaggle of news video cameras, a man was giving away bumper stickers that started appearing stuck on arms, backs, strollers, and bags and which stated in simple black lettering: “Don’t Partially Hydrogenate Me.” Well said.