Does that jelly doughnut or fried chicken you chomp into contain what many nutritionists say is the worst additive in America's food supply? It might – depending on what recipe was used.
Researchers have linked the consumption of artificial trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to a higher incidence of certain ailments, including heart disease and diabetes. But restaurants are under no obligation to use trans-fat substitutes or tell customers that they're swallowing a potentially dangerous substance.
"It's kind of a stealth product," says Geoffrey Martin, director of the foods department at Consumer Reports magazine in Yonkers, N.Y.
New York City wants to change that. Late last month, its Health Department proposed to step into the kitchens of the city's restaurants, from fast-food joints to elegant nightspots, and mandate that trans fats in all recipes be removed or reduced to minuscule quantities. The idea has received raves from healthy food advocates but left a sour taste in the mouths of many in the restaurant industry, as well as those concerned that a nosy government is about to invade another aspect of citizens' personal lives.
The proposal, which will be voted on by members of the city's Board of Health later this year, would phase in the ban over an 18-month period. It has aroused wide interest outside the city, since New York has a tradition of taking innovative first steps to protect public health. In 1960, New York prohibited the use of lead paint in buildings, some 18 years before the federal government took similar action. And, more recently, it banned smoking in restaurants in 2003.
Already since New York announced its plans, a legislator in New Jersey has proposed a similar ban on trans fats in her state. The District of Columbia has also expressed interest in the New York initiative.
"New Yorkers are consuming a hazardous, artificial substance without their knowledge or consent," the city's health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said in announcing the proposed ban. "Like lead in paint, artificial trans fat in food is invisible and dangerous.... While it may take some effort, restaurants can replace trans fat without changing the taste or cost of food. No one will miss it when it's gone."
But not everyone agrees. Removing trans fats is "not a health-safety issue," such as the recent deaths attributed to E. coli bacteria in fresh spinach, says Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C., a group funded by the restaurant and food industries. "That's a different issue."
Today's concern over trans fats, Mr. Berman says, has "a little bit too much hysteria, and a little bit too much regulatory involvement here, than there should justifiably be."
Rather than placing a burden on restaurants to police consumption of trans fats, the government ought to ban them outright if it feels they are harmful, says Rick Sampson, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, which represents some 8,500 dining establishments in the state.
"Don't blame the industry," Mr. Sampson says, pointing out that some restaurants already have decided to get rid of trans fats on their own, responding to customer demands.
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.
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.