Celebrate the Ban

Eliminating trans fats from New York City restaurants turned out to be a victory for public health
illustration of scissors cutting french fries
“We have entered a new era where the focus is on limiting rather than maximizing intake,” Alice Lichtenstein says. Illustration: Blair Kelly
March 1, 2013

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A ban on trans fats has made restaurant foods in New York City that much healthier, and diners didn’t need to lift a finger or put down a fork.

A recent study to evaluate the impact of the regulations, which took effect in 2007, found that when restaurants replaced the partially hydrogenated fats in their recipes with healthier oils and spreads, the trans fat content of foods decreased to almost zero while the saturated fat content increased just slightly. Restaurants didn’t have to spend more, either. In an editorial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Gershoff Professor Alice H. Lichtenstein, writes that consumers reaped the heart-healthy benefits of the change without having to summon their willpower or study up on nutrition.

“Having a default option takes some of the stress of making healthy choices from the consumer, and this strategy could succeed where other population-wide initiatives, such as dietary guidelines or recommendations, have fallen short,” says Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts.

Historically, attempts to modify food production for the public good have meant adding in nutrients, such as iodizing salt and adding vitamins A and D to milk. “We have entered a new era where the focus is on limiting rather than maximizing intake,” Lichtenstein writes.

She credits much of the success of the regulation to its implementation: The city set up a hotline to answer technical questions from chefs; offered “trans fat 101” courses in English, Spanish and Chinese to educate those involved; and created a comprehensive website with guidance for preparing foods without trans fat.

The trans fat ban did what it set out to do, which is make the default option for restaurant foods a bit healthier. That doesn’t mean that greasy French fries are now good for you. Taking in too many calories is still the country’s major public health problem, and Lichtenstein warns that the trans fat-free label shouldn’t give an undeserved “health halo” to calorie-dense foods. “Vigilance in this area is essential,” she writes.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Tufts Nutrition magazine.