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NEW YORK -- The New York City health department urged all city restaurants this week to stop serving food containing trans fats, chemically modified ingredients that health officials say significantly increase the risk of heart disease and should not be part of any healthy diet.
The New York Times reports that the request, the first of its kind by any large American city, is the latest salvo in the battle against trans fats, components of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which three decades ago were promoted as a healthy alternative to saturated fats like butter.
Today, most scientists and nutrition experts agree that trans fat is America's most dangerous fat and recommend the use of alternatives like olive and sunflower oils.
"To help combat heart disease, the No. 1 killer in New York City, we are asking restaurants to voluntarily make an oil change and remove artificial trans fat from their kitchens," said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city's health commissioner, who compared trans fats to asbestos and lead as public health threats. "We are also urging food suppliers to provide products that are trans-fat free."
It is far from clear how many restaurants will heed the call of Dr. Frieden, one of the city's most activist public health commissioners in a generation.
A survey by the department's food inspectors found that from 30 to 60 percent of the city's 20,000 restaurants use partially hydrogenated oil in food preparation, meaning that thousands of cooks and chefs might need to change their cooking and purchasing habits to meet the request. Trans fats are particularly prominent in baked goods, frying oils, and breading, and can be hard to replace without raising costs or changing the taste of familiar foods like cookies and French fries.
While the health department will not seek to ban the ingredient outright, it has begun an educational campaign among restaurateurs, their suppliers and the public denouncing trans fats, according to the Times. In a letter sent to all food suppliers in the city last week, Dr. Frieden wrote: "Consumers want healthier choices when eating out. Our campaign will increase consumer demand for meals without trans fat."
Many of the city's higher-priced restaurants already avoid using the fats, and Dr. Frieden said he had received a positive response from other restaurants and suppliers who will try to get on board.
"Working together to reduce trans fat from our kitchens will be one more way to ensure an enjoyable and healthy experience," said E. Charles Hunt, the executive vice president for the New York State Restaurant Association, which represents 7,000 restaurants across the state.
Public health officials contend that trans fat not only has the same heart-clogging properties as saturated fat, but also reduces the "good" cholesterol that works to clear arteries.
Denmark imposed a ban in 2003 on all processed foods containing more than 2 percent of trans fat for every 100 grams of fat. Canada is considering a similar ban.
Government agencies in the United States have been less interventionist, largely relying on the industry to police itself. Outside of New York, the only effort of note was a campaign in Tiburon, a small town in Marin County, Calif., that led to 18 local restaurants ending the use of trans fats.
New York's campaign comes on the heels of the Food and Drug Administration's finding that there is no safe level of trans fats in a healthy diet. As a result of that finding, all food companies must include trans fat levels in labeling information starting Jan. 1.
McDonald's and some other fast food companies have pledged to use healthier alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils but have faltered in finding a solution that is both cost effective and that does not significantly alter the taste of their foods.