Good health policy or criminalizing bad habits

Posted on February 09, 2007 | Type: In the News
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Step aside partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Make way for soy.

On the heels of New York City's ban to free its restaurants of trans fatty acids, Marriott International hotels just announced it is dumping the harder-to-pronounce cooking oil in favor of deep fryers filled with a healthier alternative soybean oil. Beginning this month, Marriott becomes yet another company getting in line to please the publics taste for something less fat, and maybe save a few lives in the process.

Consumer-driven bans

Likewise, McDonalds has finally after several years of testing announced it, too, has found a healthier alternative in soy (added to canola oil) for its French fries.

Also joining the bandwagon is the Arizona grocery store chain, Fry's. Its parent company, Kroger, phased in a policy to eliminate trans fat by mid-December 2006.

Everything we fry is now trans fat-free, says company spokesperson Kendra Doyle.

Without a ban to force the bad fat out of its fried chicken and bean burritos, Fry's simply acted voluntarily, based on customer needs.

Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association, thinks that is how the elimination of trans fatty acids from the publics plate should be accomplished.

Let the market create the change, he says.

Although the grocery chain received no actual requests to remove trans fat from the deli, Ms. Doyle says they made the switch to follow a change in the way consumers are eating and because the new policy fits well with Fry's mission to build healthy families.

She wouldn't reveal how much it may have cost the chain to enact the new policy in all 116 of its Arizona stores, but she insists, The change is worth it. Absolutely.

Health risks

In a country where heart disease has become the number one killer (Nearly 700,000 people die from heart disease in America each year), trans fat is considered part of the cause. The American Heart Association defines trans fat (also called trans fatty acids) as the fat that is formed when liquid vegetable oils go through a chemical process that adds hydrogen to the oil. This process, called hydrogenation, makes the oil more solid, gives it a longer shelf-life, and provides the taste, shape and texture consumers have grown accustomed to eating.

Found in shortenings and stick or tub margarine, cookies, crackers, and other snack foods, as well fried foods and baked goods, evidence began mounting against trans fats in the 1980s. What was once considered the healthier alternative to the saturated fats naturally found in meats, dairy products and lard, is now known worldwide as worse than saturated fats. Trans fats not only raise the bad LDL cholesterol, as do saturated fats, but they also lower the good HDL cholesterol.

Such contradictions can befuddle even those who are responsible for the health of others. There will always be some scientific data to promote or justify any such action [as a ban], says Dr. Jeffrey A. Singer, a former New Yorker who is now an Arizona-based surgeon and opponent of the New York City ban. He calls this advocacy science and insists, in an opinion piece distributed by the Goldwater Institute, that while he agrees independent organizations should be free to make information available to the public regarding risks and benefits, they must not be allowed to make decisions for us.

But Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, says the ban is a step in the right direction.

Lawsuit results in trans fat-free Oreos

Leaders at the non-profit organization, Ban Trans Fats, think so as well. When nutrition experts can cite statistics that claim a 2 percent increase in trans fat consumption will increase a persons risk of heart disease by an average of 25 percent, a ban might be necessary if it means improved consumer health. Thats why the non-profit sued Kraft in 2003, asking it to eliminate trans fat from its Oreo cookies. The non-profit dropped the suit when Kraft agreed to the action.

The lawsuit created mass public awareness of the harmful effects of digesting too much trans fat, and the organization now leads an online campaign to encourage other companies to remove hydrogenated oils from their products voluntarily. The Web site, www.bantransfats.com, posts a list of companies that have either eliminated or are taking steps to eliminate the artery-clogging substance from their food products. Included on this list are Universal Studios theme parks, Loews Hotels, Kroger, Souper Salad, Taco Bell, Wendy's and many others. Since the New York ban, more companies, including Marriott, KFC and McDonalds, are joining the list.

Although Arizona is not among them yet as many as 20 other government entities, including Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles County, are now considering ways to address the trans fat issue. Some entities may wait until after they've had time to review the results of the Big Apples new law before implementing any of their own. After New York's law takes full effect in July 2008, restaurants not in compliance at that time could be subject to fines of $200 per violation.

Goldwater Institute president against trans fat bans

That's what has Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute, up in arms.

These kinds of bans criminalize what is really just a bad habit, she says, I mean, were talking about doughnuts. Government is overstepping its bounds when it tries to dictate diet.

And she doesn't see Arizona, with its pioneering history that includes cowboys who wouldn't stand for government telling them what to eat for a midnight snack, supporting such a measure.

We don't see the trend happening here. Arizona will not broadly support such a ban, she contends.

Still, either through government bans or voluntary action, according to a press release issued last month by the consumer advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Trans fat is on its way out of the food supply.

That's fine with Chucri, who operates the trade organization that looks out for Arizona's restaurants, as long as no one is forced to make that change.

Part of his associations job is to educate legislators, and he says hell be focusing attention on sharing with policy-makers what his members are doing on their own. As more and more restaurants work to remove trans fat off their menus, he doesn't see a mandate as the way to go.

Ill be asking legislators to give us the opportunity to continue to address the problem on our own, he says.

Because, despite the cost, he says, the industry is going to look at what's best for the customer.

Since it is known that processed foods and oils provide approximately 80 percent of trans fats in the diet, compared to the 20 percent that occur naturally in food from animal sources, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend keeping trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible. It also prescribes the two best weapons to use in fighting heart disease: a healthy diet and a lifestyle change.

Singer proposes moderation something, he says, Arizonans can define for themselves.

But trans fat is just one part of the problem, reminds nutrition professor Lichtenstein.

In general, people are still eating far more saturated fat than trans fat, and both need to be reduced in order to maintain optimal cholesterol levels and promote heart health, she says, and the big giant total calories is always looming in the background.

So even if you've made sure the menu or the waitress says the fries are dipped in soybean oil, your best bet? Order the salad, with dressing on the side.

Its common sense, Olsen says.

Jackie Dishner is a Valley freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Arizona Capitol Times.

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