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NYC:  Trans Fat Free

On December 5, 2006, the New York City Board of Health unanimously voted on Article 81 of the New York City Health Code to ensure the phasing-out of artificial trans fat from all its food service establishments. This amendment applies to all foods being served by restaurants, except for food sold in the manufacturer’s original sealed package. According to the approved amendment, by July 1, 2007 the first phase would eliminate oils, shortenings, and margarines containing artificial trans fat that are used for frying or in spreads. The second phase, put into effect a year later, would eliminate oils or shortenings used for deep-frying of yeast dough or cake batter, and all other foods containing trans fat.

You may have noticed a recent rise in the effort to ban artificial trans fat from many food service establishments and businesses. Those bans are fueled by scientific evidence that demonstrates a direct link between trans fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), trans fat is known to raise LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease. Unlike some dietary fat, artificial trans fat has not been linked to any health benefits. In fact, the FDA states that there is no % Daily Value for trans fat and proposed that “the intake of trans fats should be as low as possible.” In New York, where eating out is a way of life, the fight against trans fat and commitment to public health has been raised to a whole new level.

One of the main sources of artificial trans fat is baked and fried foods, which are prepared using industrially-produced partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (PHVO). Artificial trans fats are produced when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. This process allows for oils to become more solid, have a longer fry-life, and longer shelf-life for their baked products. Unfortunately, the cost of these industrial gains is the introduction of lethal trans fat. Common sources of artificial trans fat include: any foods fried in PHVO; prepared foods such as fried chicken, doughnuts, and French fries; and baked goods such as pizza dough, cookies, and pies. As a result of the impending ban, food service establishments all over New York are switching away from PHVO’s to healthier and equally cost-effective alternative vegetable oils such as olive, canola, soybean and corn oil.

To assist with healthy eating choices, food manufacturers are now required to list “Trans Fat” on Nutrition Facts and some Supplemental Facts panels. However, Nutrition Facts only list information for one serving of the product. Consumers should be well aware that if a product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per ONE serving, manufacturers are able to claim their products as trans fat free and either omit the trans fat amount or list it as “0 grams”. Most products typically have multiple servings per package. To make a smarter choice about trans fat intake, it is recommended that one take into account the “Servings Per Container” information listed at the top of the Nutrition Facts panel. Take for example a box of cookies. If it were to have 0.2 grams of trans fat per serving, the manufacturer could advertise the cookies as trans fat-free since its trans fat content fell below the 0.5 gram listing guideline. However, if the box of cookies listed 5 servings per container, a simple calculation would show that the product actually had a total trans fat content of 1.0 grams.

Cookies Example

Trans Fat per serving: 0.2 grams

Servings per container: 5 servings

Total trans fat per container: 0.2g x 5 servings = 1.0 total grams trans fat

This information is worth taking into consideration when making trans fat “free” choices. If ever in doubt of a products complete nutritional make-up, contact the manufacturer for more information.

Along with trans fat, consumers should limit their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol in the foods they eat. The listing of saturated fat per serving is located above the trans fat amount on the Nutrition Facts label. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, the Daily Value of saturated fat is listed at 20 grams (which is 9 percent of caloric intake). As a health suggestion, one should not exceed this amount for the combined intake of saturated fat and trans fat.

Most Americans should follow in the heart-healthy footsteps of New York. Alternatives and resources do exist, so take time out and make the right food choices. Your stomach and heart will thank you.

Written by Orestes Mikhail Quisumbing, B.A. with Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D. Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA