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New York City Puts Public Health First By Banning Trans Fats

Dec 1, 2006 When Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., the Executive Director and founder of CSPI (The Center for Science in the Public Interest), began his campaign against trans fats several years ago, he was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. In fact, most people could not have cared (or known) less about trans fats and the health dangers they posed. Many resented Jacobson’s crusade as nothing more than an attempt to establish himself as the “food police” seeking to dictate what Americans should and should not eat.

On December 5, however, the New York City Board of Health unanimously voted to ban the use of these harmful fats in cooking at the city’s 24,000 restaurants that will have six months to stop frying foods in oils that contain high levels of trans fats and 18 months to switch to alternative ways of making pie crusts, doughnuts and other baked goods; or face fines for each violation of the ban.

In taking this dramatic step, New York City (NYC) became the first municipality to take on the giant fast-food industry by drawing a line with respect to the use of what is now widely recognized as a leading cause of coronary heart disease. Other local and state governments are now considering taking steps o follow New York City’s lead.

In addition to the trans fat ban, the Board of Health (BOH) is also requiring some eating establishments, primarily fast food outlets, to display the caloric content of each food item in a prominent place.

NYC’s action is not without its critics, however. As expected, the trans fat ban has prompted a negative reaction from certain food-industry organizations as well as from many individuals, who resent government intrusion into what they believe is a purely personal life-style choice.

NYC’s health-conscious mayor, Michael Bloomberg, believes that the ban is a positive step towards what he hopes will be a healthier New York.  Dan Flesher, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association says that the ban is “a misguided attempt at social engineering by a group of physicians who don’t understand the restaurant industry.” Flesher also believes that the trans fat ban and the calorie regulations can be challenged legally.  Restaurant owners have already threatened to file lawsuits to block the restrictions.

“This will be better for people’s health, but we’d like to know where to go from here,” said O’Neil Whyte, a baker at Sweet Chef Southern Styles Bakery in Harlem. “Things without trans fat are harder to get and more expensive.” Of course, restaurant owners are not as enthusiastic as these new regulations are quite restrictive.

Implementing alternatives may also end up costing restaurants significantly more money. Chefs argue that it will be difficult to prepare some foods that people have grown accustomed to without altering their taste or consistency. 

Trans fats are the chemically modified food ingredients that raise levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. They have been linked to heart disease and health problems such as obesity; both of which have now reached epidemic proportions in the United States and elsewhere. This is especially troubling with respect to the dramatic increase of these formerly “adult” diseases in children and adolescents.

Trans fats are often used as a substitute for saturated fats in baked goods, fried foods, salad dressings, margarine and other foods, as they have a longer shelf life than other alternatives. Trans fats lower the amounts of  HDL, or “good” cholesterol while raising the levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.  They can also make the arteries more rigid, cause arteries to become severely clogged, cause resistance to insulin resistance, and cause or contribute to type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems.

Trans fat, which is short for trans fatty acids, is regarded as the worst kind of fat by doctors and health advocates.  It is far worse for the human body than saturated fat.

Partial hydrogenation is a process used to make liquid oil more solid.  This way it can give baked products a longer shelf-life and give cooking oils more power to fry longer. It also has a “likeable” and almost recognizeable texture. Partially hydrogenated oil, however, is teeming with dangerous trans fat.

Partially hydrogenated oils are usually found in processed foods like commercial baked products such as cookies, cakes and crackers, and some kinds of bread. They are also used as cooking oils for frying in a high percentage of restaurants, especially those associated with the preparation and sale of fast-foods.

This is one reason why the ban is being regarded as problematic by many restaurant owners. They will now have to rethink their entire food preparation process and find acceptable alternatives to use in their cooking that do not violate the ban and retain the customary flavor of the foods involved. As with many products considered to be “healthy” alternatives, cooking oils without hydrogenated oils tend to be more expensive.

It is important to distinguish unhealthy trans fat from the naturally occurring trans fat that is found in small amounts in foods such as pomegranets, cabbage, peas, and in the meat and milk of cows, sheep and goats. The latter is not harmful to the human body.

Researchers at Harvard say that, “the, replacement of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural unhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year."

In the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, on January 12, 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) advised men and women to be careful in regards to their consumption of saturated fats and trans fats.  They recommended that people only consume 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids and less than 300 mg per day of cholesterol. They also recommended that people keep their consumption of trans fatty acids as low as possible.

The USDA and the HHS also gave this message to the public in regards to the food industry: “Because trans fatty acids produced in the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils account for more than 80 percent of total intake, the food industry has an important role in decreasing trans fatty acid content of the food supply.”

Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of HHS, said that the FDA may recommend that daily intake of trans fat be less than 2 grams, perhaps less than 1 gram. Essentially, that would mean completely avoiding any food containing partially hydrogenated oils.

In June 2006, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued its "Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations." In that report, the AHA recommended the daily intake of trans fats be limited to 1 percent of total calories, which is equivalent to roughly 2 to 2.5 grams of trans fat per day.

The AHA also recommended that food manufacturers and restaurants replace partially hydrogenated oils with low saturated fat alternatives.

Trans fat is in many different kinds of food. If one is not monitoring their trans fat intake they could end up consuming incredibly large amounts of it. Here are just a few examples of food products that have high levels of trans fat (indicated in grams):
•    One McDonald's large fries contains 8 grams;
•    A McDonald's apple pie contains 4.5 grams;
•    Four Girl Scout shortbread cookies contain 1.5 grams;
•    A large order of KFC Popcorn Chicken contains 7 grams;
•    KFC's Chicken Pot Pie contains 14 grams;
•    A typical 3-piece KFC Extra Crispy combo meal, with a drumstick, two thighs, potato wedges, and a biscuit contains 15 grams of trans fat.

In order to monitor trans fat intake or to avoid trans fat altogether there are several things that one can do.  First, do not consume anything which has the words "partially hydrogenated" or "shortening" in the ingredients list.  As a side note, fully hydrogenated oils do not contain trans fat. Second, when eating out or when purchasing food at a bakery or other fresh food establishment, ask whether they use partially hydrogenated oils for cooking, baking, or in their salad dressings.

Labels can be misleading, however. For example, FDA regulations state that "if the serving contains less than 0.5 gram [of trans fat], the content, when declared, shall be expressed as zero." If a product contains a small amount of trans fat, say 0.4 grams per serving and you have four servings of that product, then you would have just consumed 1.6 grams of trans fat, even though the label claims that the product contains zero grams of trans fat per serving.

This is especially problematic with respect to sprays and other products used in frying that are touted as fat-fee or zero-trans fats. If a consumer realizes how difficult, if not impossible, it is to use only the extremely small serving size listed on the packaging (such as ¼ or ½ of a second), it then becomes clear that a one- or two- second spray actually adds an unhealthy amount of trans fats to the food being cooked despite the impression that just the opposite is occurring.

Also, products from outside the United States have different labeling rules.  Therefore, many such “foreign” products contain partially hydrogenated oil even though it does not appear on the label.

The New York trans fat ban is expected to begin in July of 2007.  Restaurants would be given a generous grace period even after the ban officially goes into effect. While they will have to make permanent changes to their trans fat usage in the facility, they will have until July of 2008 to officially remove all items containing more than half a gram of trans fat per serving.

Chicago is also considering a similar municipal ban and was, in fact, ahead of New York in taking the first steps to get the ban passed.
Tiburon, a city located on the San Francisco Bay, is also taking big steps to remove trans fat from the menu. All the restaurants in Tiburon now use trans-fat free cooking oil for frying.

In March 2003, Denmark issued new regulations limiting the amount of trans fat in processed foods. Denmark's food minister said: "We put the public health above the industry's interests."

The following is a statement issued by CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson, with respect to the NYC ban on trans fats: 
“Congratulations to the New York City Board of Health, Health Commissioner Tom Frieden and Mayor Michael Bloomberg for adopting these bold new measures to promote the public’s health. When New York City's major chain restaurants comply with these sensible new regulations, I hope they make the changes nationwide.

After all, several major chains have already forsaken the artificial trans fat found in partially hydrogenated oils, particularly for deep-frying. And a brief stroll through the supermarket should convince doubters that manufacturers of processed foods and bakery items have been successful getting trans fats out of those items as well. If trans-fat labeling in the supermarket was the beginning of the end of trans fat, New York's move today is the middle of the end of trans fat.

The calorie-labeling regulation approved by the board today will be of enormous help to weight-conscious New Yorkers. Many of the big chains already have this information, but many of them only put it on web sites or brochures. There is no practical reason why chains can't include calories right next to the price of the item on menus and menu boards. Most of the industry's arguments against calorie labeling are simply red herrings. The regulations will not apply to daily specials and non-standardized items. Calorie labeling will put consumers back in the driver's seat and let them exercise personal responsibility for themselves and their children.

CSPI will be encouraging other cities and states, as well as Congress, to ensure that the rest of the country receives the same kind of protection from trans fat and information about calories as New Yorkers will soon have.”
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