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New York Times Chronicles Movement to Ban Trans Fat February 23, 2009

Posted by Anna Dillingham in Prevention, Uncategorized.
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In a recent New York Times article, Stacey Stowe reports that Suffolk is the latest county to ban the use of trans fats in restaurants.  The legislation also requires restaurants to include calorie information on menus.  Suffolk County, NY joins a growing list of local governments that have taken similar action in an effort to fight rising obesity rates. 

According to nutrition information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils, created during food processing.  They occur when liquid oils are converted into solid fats, which helps keep food fresh longer, but also have bad implications for health.  Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease.  Heart disease is the number one killer in America. US dietary guidelines recommend keeping the amount of trans fat consumed as low as possible.

The Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) is a big proponent of anti-trans fat legislation.  On their web site, you can see a list of counties and states that have enacted bans on trans fats in restaurants.  The biggie is the state of California, but also on the list are quite a few local governments in New York—New York City, Nassau county, Westchester county, Suffolk county, Albany county, as well as nearby Stamford, CT. 

But as Ms. Stowe reports in her article, not everyone is happy about this latest trend.  When a New Jersey state senator proposed enacting a trans fat ban in her state, she experienced fierce opposition, was threatened and even received hate mail.  Many oppose forcing restaurants to make the switch, saying businesses and consumers have a right to make their own decisions about what they eat.  And that such legislation is needlessly targeting trans fat, when there are so many other culprits to the obesity epidemic.

I can’t help wonder if the New York Times’ ample coverage of the issue—both the pros and cons—has helped the growing movement to rid restaurants of unhealthy trans fat.  It was two years ago that New York City passed its own legislation.  Since then the newspaper has written on the topic at least ten times, sometimes chronicling New York City’s efforts to make the change.  In one 2008 story by Anemona Hartocollis, the challenges and success of various business owners are described.  One Jamaican restaurant owner, Jackie Haye, was quoted as saying that the change to non trans fat products was easier then expected.  While the stories do not sugarcoat the experience, they do help other localities see that enacting such bans is very much possible.  The regular coverage in such a high profile newspaper also increases the visibility of this huge public health challenge and possible efforts to combat it.

It is true that there are many, many culprits to blame for the obesity epidemic.  But I am encouraged by recent legislative efforts in New York, California, and even my own Montgomery County, MD.

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