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Trans Fat Ban Plan Worries NYC Eateries

October 29, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) _ There are plenty of things in Kentucky Fried Chicken’s that are bad for your health _ cholesterol, saturated fat and salt, to name a few. But only one has the potential to get the colonel’s recipe banned in New York City.

That ingredient is artificial trans fat, a substance so common that the average American eats 4.7 pounds of it a year, according to the Food and Drug Administration, yet so unhealthy, city health officials say it belongs in the same category as food spoiled by poor refrigeration or rodent droppings.

On Monday, the Board of Health will hold its first public hearing on a plan to make New York the first U.S. city to ban restaurants from serving food containing artificial trans fats.

The proposal has eateries scrambling for ways to get the substance out of their food, and there were indications Kentucky Fried Chicken was among them.

The company said it was planning a ``major announcement″ in New York on Monday about a change coming to all 5,500 of its U.S. restaurants. Franchise owners told several newspapers and magazines that KFC would stop using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil _ the primary source of artificial trans fats.

Spokespeople for the company and its parent, Yum Brands Inc., declined to comment, but the possible switch was applauded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sued KFC in June over the trans fat content of its chicken.

``Assuming KFC goes through with it, it would be a tremendous improvement for the nutritional quality of their foods,″ said the center’s executive director, Mike Jacobson.

The Louisville, K.Y. company isn’t the only business preparing for a trans-fat-free future.

Dow AgroScience, a maker of three types of zero-trans-fat canola and sunflower seed oils, said it has ramped up production capacity to 1.5 billion pounds a year _ enough to replace about a third of the 5 billion pounds of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil sold annually in the U.S.

Wendy’s, the national burger chain, has already switched to a zero-trans fat oil. McDonald’s had announced that it intended to do so as well in 2003, but has yet to follow through.

If approved, New York’s ban would only affect restaurants, not grocery stores, and wouldn’t extend beyond the city’s limits. But experts said the city’s foodservice industry is so large, any change in its rules is likely to ripple nationwide.

``It’s huge. It’s going to be the trendsetter for the entire country,″ said Suzanne Vieira, director of the culinary nutrition program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

Professors at the culinary arts school already have their students experimenting with substitute oils and shortenings _ a sometimes traumatic process for chefs reluctant to tinker with favorite dishes.

New York’s thousands of independently owned restaurants were beginning to look for ways to make changes too _ not all happily.

Richard Lipsky, a spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, said many eatery owners rely on ingredients prepared elsewhere, and aren’t always aware whether the foods they sell contain trans fats.

``It’s a real black hole when it comes to knowledge on the subject,″ he said.

Invented in the early 1900s, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was initially believed to be a healthy substitute for natural fats like butter or lard. It was also cheaper, performed better under high heat and had a longer shelf life.

Today, the oil is used as a shortening in baked goods like cookies, crackers and doughnuts, as well as in deep frying.

Ironically, many big fast food companies only become dependent on hydrogenated oil a decade and a half ago when they were pressured by health groups to do something about saturated fat.

McDonald’s emptied its french fryers of beef tallow in 1990 and filled them with what was then thought to be ``heart healthy″ partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

``They did so in all innocence, trying to do the right thing,″ said Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ``Everybody thought it was safe. We thought it was safe.″

Some restaurants were still completing the changeover when the first major study appeared indicating that the hydrogenated oils were just as bad for you, if not worse.

When eaten, trans fats significantly raise the level of so-called ``bad″ cholesterol in the blood, clogging arteries and causing heart disease. Researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health estimated that trans fats contribute to 30,000 U.S. deaths a year.

``This is something we’d like to dismiss from our food supply,″ said Dr. Robert H. Eckel, immediate past president of the American Heart Association.

Whether diners will go along with the change _ or revolt _ remains to be seen.

After New Jersey state senator Ellen Karcher proposed a similar artificial trans fat ban in early October, her office was so flooded with threatening phone calls, she sent her staff home and called the police.

A proposed ban in Chicago was also ridiculed by some members of the public as government paternalism run amok.

Dr. Leslie Cho, medical director for preventative cardiology and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic, said people might be less upset if they knew how bad trans fats are for the body.

``I don’t know anything about politics, but what I should tell my patients is that they should not eat any type of artificial trans fat,″ she said.

Do they listen?

``The majority of the people I deal with have had stents or bypass surgery,″ she said. ``They are kind of motivated to change their lives.″

New York’s Board of Health is expected to mull the ban until at least December.

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