A trend may not truly be set until it takes hold in California. But when it comes to artery-clogging, waist-bulging food, many Minnesotans look first to their own State Fair.
So a trend clearly was in the works when a new crop of signs sprouted at the Fair last year, like tassels in a corn field, advertising that everything from pronto pups to fried cheese curds were free of trans fats. (Which makes them what — health foods?)
Now, California weighs in. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law on Friday a measure that will phase out the use of trans fats in all California restaurants beginning in 2010 and in all retail baked goods by 2011.
California is the first state in the nation to outlaw the unhealthy fats, Schwarzenegger boasted in a press release. New York City and Philadelphia led the drive for banning the fats beginning in 2006, and at least two other metro areas have followed suit.
The bans were supported by the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and several health-related groups.
California’s legislation was vigorously opposed by the California Restaurant Association, which argued that it would not substantially affect public health because people eat 75 percent of their meals at home, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The decision on what ingredients restaurants use in cooking should be based on the desires of customers, not government officials, association spokesman Daniel Conway told the Times.
‘Give me trans fats or give me death!’
It’s worth checking the Times article for the 200-plus comments readers have posted. They give a flavor of California’s pitched battle over the law.
“Give me trans fats or give me death!” was the headline for a Times blog summarizing the comments.
Actually, most of us could write the script for the debate without reading the comments because we’ve heard the same arguments when government mandated other health-driven social changes — from seat belt requirements to smoking bans.
Opponents find themselves trapped in a “nanny state” where their civil liberties are oppressed because the law requires them to buckle up on the highways but forbids them to light up in public.
Proponents argue the science, which is often convincing, but dull compared with the opposition’s rhetorical flourishes.
In the case of trans fats, the argument for the bans come from doctors and scientists who have established the fats as a significant cause of heart disease.
Trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation, the Food and Drug Administration explains.
Because the resulting oil boosted shelf life — and, some say, flavor — food processors used it in making everything from margarines to breakfast cereal.
Consumers didn’t know at first that the fat was increasing their risk of deadly heart disease and stroke by raising their “bad cholesterol” (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) while lowering the good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL).
Now the downside is well established. Eliminating artificial trans fats from the food supply could prevent between six and 19 percent of heart attacks and related deaths each year, Schwarzenegger said, citing research reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The problem for consumers, and a leading argument for the ban, is that we can’t see or smell the differences in foods containing the killer fats. Some argue they make food taste better, but few of us could identify them in a taste test.
Labeling was the first step
The first government move to regulate the fats gave consumers information to make their own choices at the supermarket. In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that manufacturers must reveal the trans fat content of foods in labels.
Add a public education campaign and the much publicized debate over New York City’s landmark ban in 2006, and you had consumers combing labels for foods free of the fats.
Like the vendors at Minnesota’s State Fair last year, many manufacturers took note, found alternatives and touted the fact that their products were made sans trans fat.
But consumers still need to monitor labels, a University of Minnesota research team reported this year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The researchers checked labels on products at a Twin Cities area Wal-Mart Super Center to assess levels of trans fat and saturated fat in margarines and butters, cookies, snack cakes and other snacks. Most of the products were trans-fat free. But several items contained substantial portions of trans fats. For example, three of 40 snack products that were sampled contained three or more grams of the fats.
“Consumers need to read product labels because the trans fat content of individual products can vary significantly,” the Minnesota research team concluded. “Products that are lower in trans and saturated fat tend to cost more, which may be a barrier to their purchase for price-conscious consumers.”
What do you do in a restaurant, though, or in your neighborhood bakery? That tantalizing cookie on the counter usually doesn’t come with an ingredient label.
That’s where California’s law comes in. State health inspectors will monitor the ingredients in the kitchens of restaurants, bakeries and other food facilities. If trans fats are found, the violators can be fined $25 to $1,000.
Many large restaurant chains already have fully or partly eliminated trans fat or committed to doing so, the Times reported. The restaurant association told the Times the chains include Wendy’s, El Pollo Loco, Mimis Cafe, KFC, Burger King, IHOP, Applebee’s, Starbucks, Subway, Taco Bell, Denny’s, Panera Bread, Red Lobster and the Olive Garden.
But the association said ethnic restaurants and small bakeries would have more trouble complying.
Rod White, the owner of Bertha’s Soul Food in Los Angeles, told the Times that it would cost him $30 more a week to buy cooking oil without trans fat, and he was angry.
“The government is infringing too much on the rights of people to even eat what they want,” White said. “Are they going to outlaw salt next because it causes hypertension?”
Overall, though, the association’s spokesman said, “given the fact that our industry is already phasing out trans fat in response to customers and that there is a delayed timeline for implementation, we are confident our members will be able to meet the mandate of the law.”
Will Minnesota follow California’s lead? Hard to say. At least one proposal for a ban has surfaced at the Minnesota Legislature.
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.