WHAT WOULD LIFE be without pies, frosting, french fries, chips, cupcakes, doughnuts, muffins, popcorn, cookies, crackers, and all manner of processed and packaged foods? A lot healthier, according to doctors and health officials -- particularly if those items include artery-clogging trans fatty acids, as many of them do. Now the health department of New York has appealed to the city's restaurants to stop serving food containing the ingredient, also known as trans fat, which health experts agree increases the risk of heart disease and should be excluded, even in small amounts, from any healthy diet.
Last week's announcement, also aimed at food suppliers, is unlikely to send all of New York's chefs rushing to organic grocery stores to restock their kitchens with more healthful ingredients. After all, people are entitled to eat, and cook, what they like. But some restaurateurs have said they will comply. And as a wake-up call to a cholesterol-conscious nation, New York's initiative, well grounded in science and an advance toward healthier diets, may spur other cities to consider following the Big Apple's lead.
Most trans fat is made by artificially bubbling hydrogen gas through vegetable oil, which prolongs the shelf life of food, improves its consistency (and taste, sad to say), and is present in scores of items in restaurants and grocery stores; it shows up on food labels as "partially hydrogenated" oil. Trans fat is so ubiquitous, and a staple ingredient of so many tasty treats, that the suggestion it can endanger your life or make you very sick leads some people to roll their eyes. But the evidence is clear: Researchers agree that it raises the "bad" cholesterol levels in blood, increasing the risk of heart disease, as do saturated fats such as butter. Unlike butter, however, trans fat is also believed to lower "good" cholesterol, with its artery-clearing properties. The Food and Drug Administration, which has pulled no punches in linking trans fat to heart disease, is requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat amounts on food nutrition labels starting Jan. 1.
Denmark has already banned foods whose trans fat content exceeds certain limits, and Canada is considering a similar measure. Some health-conscious restaurants have switched from cooking with shortening and stick margarine, which are high in trans fat, to olive, peanut, sunflower or other oils that contain none. A number of U.S. food manufacturers, including the makers of Oreo cookies, Crisco oil, Cheetos and Doritos, are eliminating or reducing trans fat from their products or introducing alternatives that do so. McDonald's has also moved to modify its french fry recipe to reduce, though not eliminate, the trans fat content.
Trans fat is a cheap ingredient -- cheaper than more healthful alternatives. It is not about to disappear from the sizzling fryers of America's restaurants and the baked goods shelves of its supermarkets. But a public education campaign might go a long way toward making consumers smarter and inducing those who make, sell and serve food to offer more wholesome alternatives and to contribute to a healthier population.