When New York City recently announced a ban on the sale of sugary sodas larger than 16 ounces, the restaurant industry said the soda ban would cut sales, kill jobs and infringe on the rights of consumers. Restaurants sounded the same alarm five years ago when NYC banned the use of trans fats in restaurants. But a new study shows that trans fat levels in restaurant meals have plummeted and New Yorkers haven’t even noticed.
Trans fats and heart disease
Trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils and fats used by restaurants and food processing factories. For example, trans fats are what keep the filling in Oreo cookies soft, years after they’re made. It’s known that trans fats raise bad LDL cholesterol and lower good HDL cholesterol. Eating even small amounts of trans fats increases a person’s risk of heart disease.
The Food and Drug Administration required food manufacturers to list trans fats on food labels starting in 2006. This enabled health-conscious consumers to avoid trans fats at home, but Americans on average eat more than a third of their meals at restaurants. In 2007 New York City stepped up to solve that problem, forcing restaurants to cease and desist cooking with trans fats.
The NYC trans fat ban
In NYC, restaurants can’t serve food that contains 0.5 grams or more trans fats per serving. A trace of trans fats is allowed because the FDA allows products containing up to 0.5 grams to read zero trans fats on the food label.
The NYC trans fat ban was the first public action to eliminate the partially hydrogenated oils and fats from public food service establishments. The NYC Department of Mental Health and Hygiene has conducted the first study investigating the affects of a trans fat ban in real life.
Reducing heart disease risk
Researchers conducted lunchtime surveys with about 15,000 customers at 168 fast food outlets in Manhattan before and after the ban was implemented. In a paper published in the latest issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, study co-author Christine Curtis reports that by 2009, trans fat content in NYC restaurant meals dropped an average of 2.4 grams—from 2.91 g in 2007 to 0.51 g in 2009.
The reduction equates to about 22 fewer trans fat calories per meal. It’s a significant difference according to the researchers, who said studies have linked consuming 40 daily calories from trans fats to a 23 percent increased risk of heart disease.
A seamless transition
The study included NYC fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, KFC and Pizza Hut. Trans fat levels fell the most at the hamburger chains, followed by Mexican and fried chicken chains.
Curtis said most restaurants complied by reformulating their recipes, reducing portion sizes and introducing healthier menu items. “For consumers, the transition was seamless,” she said. “Most New Yorkers didn’t even notice and now we know that it has really made a difference.”
Although New York is still the only place in the U.S. to ban trans fats, many of the chains included in the study have taken measures to eliminate trans fats nationwide since the NYC ban.