Trans fat issue now on governments’ plates
Nutritionists have decried trans fat as a bane to public health for its ability to raise levels of “bad” cholesterol, lower levels of “good” cholesterol and increase the risk for coronary heart disease. In response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require manufacturers to include trans fat content on packaged food labels beginning Jan. 1. While the labeling may help consumers make healthy choices, some cities believe the FDA is not going far enough.
Taking the lead, the San Francisco Bay area town of Tiburon, Calif., has successfully eliminated trans fats — also known as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) — from all 18 of its local restaurants and has introduced a rice oil that can be used as a substitute. “We thought it was a good idea, and we wanted to show other cities it could be done,” says local attorney Stephen Joseph, founder of the Web site www.BanTransFats.com.
In May, Joseph filed suit against Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods, manufacturer of trans fat-heavy Oreo cookies, to keep the sugary snack out of local schools. He cited a provision of the California state civil code that holds manufacturers liable for products that ordinary customers do not know are unsafe. Joseph dropped his suit after the ensuing publicity effectively educated the public on the dangers of trans fats.
On a grander scale, the New York City Health Department has requested that restaurants voluntarily stop using trans fats. Health Department officials issued a bulletin in May informing consumers of trans fats’ dangers and followed up in June by mailing 14,000 letters to New York restaurant suppliers asking them to offer alternatives. A press release also went to more than 20,000 city restaurants, requesting that owners remove trans fat-laden items from menus.
“Ours is purely an educational campaign, and we think we demonstrated a good model,” says Sonia Angell, director of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “We saw this as an opportunity to decrease cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death in NYC, the cause of 24,000 NYC deaths alone in 2003.” Meanwhile, the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to require restaurants that use PHOs to inform customers.
Peter Meehan, co-founder and CEO of Newman’s Own Organics, says the challenge facing large-scale food manufacturers and fast food chains is that PHOs are an extremely effective product in mass production operations. Foods with PHO content have a consistent taste and a longer shelf life, both important marketing factors. Meehan says many manufacturers are taking a cautious approach by complying with the FDA requirement and perhaps looking at alternatives, while others are waiting to find out how much nutritional labeling will affect consumer buying habits.
Aside from restaurants and grocery stores, school lunch programs may prove a lightning rod for change. New York’s North Shore Schools Food Service Committee, for example, analyzed snacks offered in its elementary and middle schools. The committee decided to replace all chips with baked Lays and allow only Smart Popcorn brand popcorn because the products do not contain PHOs.
On the downside, nutrition often must compete with revenues generated from not-so-healthy food options that help school systems balance their budgets. Schools, in fact, can earn up to $100,000 per year from vending machine sales, according to a 2002 study from the New York-based Food-Change.
Nothing, however, is fool proof, and consumers should be aware that trans fat content of less than 0.5 grams will be listed as zero on nutritional labels. Despite the potential shortcomings, consumer response to the new labeling requirement could help cities determine how receptive residents might be to locally imposed safeguards against trans fats.
— Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.