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Lead paint, cigarettes: Are trans fats next?

New York City's Health Department wants to ban trans fats from the menus of the city's restaurants.

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Voluntary removal of trans fats is not just happening in boutique or natural-foods restaurants. All 6,000 Wendy's restaurants in the United States, for example, now use cooking oil with zero grams of trans fat per serving, including fried items such as French fries and chicken products.

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Consumers buying food at supermarkets are already alerted to the presence of trans fats. A Food and Drug Administration edict Jan. 1 requires that the percentage of trans fats be listed on labels. Makers of prepared foods such as cookies, cakes, and crackers have responded by changing their recipes to use other oils to qualify for a zero trans fats label. Ironically, some are returning to the use of saturated fats. Trans fats were meant to be a more healthful alternative, but now are deemed more harmful than saturated fats.

If a food product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, it can list 0 percent on labels. But some manufacturers have simply made the suggested serving size smaller to get under the 0.5 standard and win a "trans fat free" label.

"I consider that the sleazy way of doing it," Mr. Martin of Consumer Reports says.

To be sure that an item is "trans fat-free," consumers should look at the ingredients. "If there is a food product with partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list, step back from the box and you won't get hurt," says Dr. David Katz, a professor of public health at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. "That's what I tell everybody to do."

Misleading or confusing food labeling continues to frustrate shoppers who want to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Hannaford Bros. Co., a chain of 158 supermarkets in New York state and New England, is trying to help its shoppers with its "Guiding Stars" program. Some 27,000 food products on its shelves are labeled with zero to three stars, with more stars indicating a better overall nutritional value. A panel of food experts grades the products, which include both store and national brands. Among the criteria that can give foods a rating of zero stars is the presence of trans fats.

Dr. Katz likens trans fats to mercury and lead, slow poisons that consumers would be shocked to find in their food.

"The fact that [trans fat] was originally developed as a food additive, and we only figured out later that it's a poison, doesn't really change that basic logic," Katz says. "This is really bad stuff.... It's got to go."

A second proposal issued at the same time by the New York City Health Department has garnered less discussion but is at least as important, argues Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston. It would require about 10 percent of the city's restaurants to list prominently on their menus or menu boards the number of calories in each food item.

While restricting consumption of trans fats is helpful, Americans' biggest problem is that they consume too much high-calorie food, she says. About one-third of American adults are overweight.

"I think obesity is the No. 1 problem, and I think trans fat is the No. 2 problem" in nutrition, Professor Lichtenstein says.

Katz says he hopes both New York City proposals become widely adopted around the country. "I think there will be tremendous pressure on the restaurant industry and the food industry to comply voluntarily, because when the consumer doesn't want something, that exerts a very strong influence," he says.