Following the New York City Board of Health’s announcement Tuesday of its intention to severely limit artificial trans-fat levels in city restaurants by 2008, debate over whether the government should be limiting the use of an oil commonly found in processed foods and deep fryers has exploded in the Big Apple — but just 80 miles to the north in New Haven, nobody seems to be listening.
Although many city, University and restaurant officials said they agreed trans-fats ideally should be removed from restaurant kitchens, they said there has been virtually no talk of doing so in the Elm City.
In New York, momentum for restricting trans-fat levels has been mounting since last year, when the city advised restaurants to reduce trans-fat content in their foods. The city’s Board of Health voted this week to start a period of open dialogue during which two proposals will be considered. The first mandates that restaurants virtually eliminate usage of artificially produced trans-fats — commonly found in vegetable shortenings used in deep fryers and commercially processed foods such as donuts, cakes and potato chips — but does not restrict usage of naturally occurring trans-fats found in foods like milk, pomegranates and cabbage. The second will require restaurants to post caloric information on their menus for foods with standardized portions.
The proposed limit for artificial trans-fat is half a gram. According to the McDonald’s Web site, a Big Mac contains 1.5 grams of trans-fat; a large serving of French fries, 8 grams.
Yale psychology professor Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said trans-fats have been shown to cause heart disease and diabetes and should be generally avoided.
“[Trans-fats] have some properties in cooking and shelf life that have made them advantageous,” Brownell said. “However, trans-fat increases inflammatory factors that increase risk for both diabetes and heart disease. I believe the action is entirely warranted and will be a positive precedent.”
But New Haven’s Environmental Health Department Director Paul Kowalski said he was not aware of any public dialogue surrounding the issue and said such a ban was not even being discussed, much less considered.
Brownell said that although New Haven should follow New York’s move, a similar ban from the city government is improbable due to the city’s size.
“A city the size of New Haven is unlikely to take this kind of action,” he said. “The action would more likely happen at a state level, but the more of this is done the better.”
David Newton, director of Yale University Properties, which leases property to a number of area restaurants, said trans-fats have not been an issue in UP-affiliated eateries.
“It has not been raised,” he said. “There is this move by many of our restaurants to use more organic ingredients, but I’ve not had the [trans-fat] question directly posed to me.”
Many local restauranteurs said they were unsure whether they used trans-fat in their food, but said they would support a ban on the oil.
Yorkside Pizza & Restaurant co-owner George Koutroumanis said that although his chefs make the majority of their food from scratch, the breads or vegetable shortening they use for deep-frying might contain trans-fats. If it was conclusively decided that trans-fats were hazardous to personal health, he said, Yorkside would get rid of any trans-fats products they use.
“To a point the government has an obligation to the people to regulate things,” Koutroumanis said. “If it’s for the good of the people and it’s a solid, valid health issue, I don’t see why they shouldn’t regulate it.”
But some restaurants that said their food does not contain trans-fats maintain that the government should not regulate the oil so strictly.
Bulldog Burrito owner Jason Congdon said his restaurant does not use trans-fats for health reasons, but that the decision whether or not to consume foods high in trans-fat should be left up to consumers.
“It’s dependent on age,” Congdon said. “As college kids, you’re old enough to be able to make a decision on what you want to buy. … It’s your choice to eat three cheeseburgers or a pita sandwich. There should be leeway for personal decision-making.”
Zinc Restaurant owner and head chef Denise Appel said trans-fats are not usually a concern for high-end restaurants, which tend to eschew processed ingredients and make their food from scratch. She said that although she does not use trans-fats in her food, restaurants should have ultimate control over what ingredients to use.
“It’s hard to say,” Appel said. “It’s freedom of speech, you do what you want, but some places need to be regulated. Fast food chains that use trans fats should have their feet held against the fire. Why add all this extra stuff to preserve your food a little longer?”
Ibiza Restaurant head chef Luis Bollo said he does not support the use of trans-fats in restaurants, but he said the blame lies with the companies that produce them rather than the restaurants that serve them.
“In the smallest places, it is a [difficult process] to change from one oil to the other because their recipes, their economics matter,” Bollo said. “That makes the change a little difficult, but the companies that are making a lot of money should not be producing trans-fat.”
Yale Dining Services spokeswoman Karen Dougherty said University dining halls do not keep track of trans-fat levels. She said nutritional information is calculated by computers — nutritional information for each ingredient is referenced to a USDA database and then summed up — but because the federal government has not yet added trans-fats values to their database, University dining halls have been unable to calculate trans-fats levels thus far. Dougherty said she does not particularly support a ban on trans-fats in University dining halls — students should instead be encouraged to eat healthily, she said.
Although New York is the first city to set into motion a law banning trans-fats, Chicago has also considered banning trans-fats in chain restaurants. There, a public hearing is set for Oct. 30 with a final vote coming in December.