In New York City, the land of the jaded and the home of the brave, concerns about food safety rarely register a blip. Need proof? Just watch intrepid New Yorkers line up in front of a cart for a hot dog "cooked" in a stainless steel bin of water. See them buy produce stacked outside the delis and bodegas on countless street corners, and eat it with nary a pass under the faucet.
That's why it was so monumental when the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene last week recommended that all city restaurants eliminate trans fats from the food they serve, "to help combat heart disease, the No. 1 killer in New York City." A 2002 report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academies of Science found that trans fats raise LDL cholesterol and contribute to heart disease. Other researchers have noted that trans fats also lower the good HDL cholesterol. The IOM/NAS report recommended that "trans fatty acid consumption be as low as possible." The report was done in advance of the Food and Drug Administration's rule that will require food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fats in a product on the nutrition label, beginning Jan. 1, 2006.
"It's a very important public health initiative," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The [government's] labeling rule does not touch restaurants."
In addition to requesting voluntary participation by restaurateurs, the health department is mailing informational packets outlining how to identify trans fats and how to substitute other, healthier fats for them.
The health department found that at least 30 percent of the city's 20,000 restaurants use partially hydrogenated oils—the primary source of trans fats—in cooking and in spreads.
"They talked to restaurant people, and the restaurant people had no idea what a trans fat is. They thought it would make sense first to educate the restaurateurs and their suppliers," Jacobson said. The department is also asking supermarkets and food suppliers to comply with the request.
The American Heart Association and the New York State Restaurant Association cheered the initiative. "New York City is world-renowned for our culinary diversity. Working together to reduce trans fat from our kitchens will be one more way to ensure an enjoyable and healthy experience for the city's 8 million residents and the millions more who visit every year," said E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the NYSRA.
Since the health department announced the request, popular media have quoted some naysayers' opinions that trans fats are no worse than saturated fats, and that trans fats were just the latest "whipping boy" for public health concerns. "I don't think they're reading the evidence correctly on just how harmful trans fat is," Jacobson said. "Last year an FDA advisory committee [said] explicitly that trans fat was worse than saturated fat. It's not just the effect on cholesterol levels. Trans fat appears to have other effects on the epithelial functioning of the arteries, and the different kinds of LDL that it creates."
Besides, Jacobson said that for many restaurants, the switch to different fats wouldn't be difficult. "In restaurants it's used mostly for frying, and in those situations it's easy to use liquid oil." He acknowledged that restaurants that produce baked goods would likely have to substitute a slightly less-bad fat such as butter or palm oil. Even so, many are willing to do what they can. "We use trans-fat-free oil in our kitchen and are moving toward increasing the low-trans-fat options on our menu," said Alan Rosen, owner of Junior's, the New York cheesecake standard-bearer.
Jacobsen said that while he'd like to see an outright ban on trans fats, New York's efforts represent a terrific first step that other cities could adopt. "I think it's going to spread if there are other public health-oriented health commissioners," he said.