New York on Sunday became the first US city to banish trans fats from its restaurants, but the city is facing an uphill struggle in forcing some eateries to display calorie information on their menus.
For the majority of New York's 20,000 restaurants, the transition towards healthier cooking oils seems to have gone smoothly, although some have displayed a degree of reluctance.
AdvertisementAt the heart of the fashionable Soho district, "Jerry's" diner abandoned trans fats a long time ago, said chef David Rotter.
"The owner is really health-conscious, he cares about what he would eat and is applying that for the customers," Rotter said.
Popular Katz's Deli switched over to soybean oil about a year and a half ago without any problem, said general manager Rob Albinder.
"It's healthier, and so we figured we'd try it with a healthier type of oil," Albinder said. "It's a good quality product and customers seem to like it, it hasn't affected the flavor in any way."
The New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA) pointed to difficulties in supplying restaurants with cooking oil alternatives, but even fast-food chains announced that they would join the movement against trans fats.
And, according to city officials, 83 percent of fast-food restaurants are already using frying oils that do not contain artery-clogging trans fats.
"This confirms that the switch is feasible," said Friday New York Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden. "But many restaurants are still using spreads such as margarine that contain artificial trans fat. These products need to be replaced with widely available alternatives."
The ban, however, will not affect bakeries until July 2008.
And that is where processed vegetable oils containing trans fats are widely used to make baked goods crunchy.
Trans fats like saturated fat are often present in cookies, pasta, pizza and doughnuts, and they are believed to be contributing factors in the spread of cardiovascular diseases.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, trans fats are linked to at least 500 annual deaths from cardiac arrest in New York.
Since 2006 the US federal government has been forcing the food processing industry to carry the mention of trans fats on its products if they contain them.
"Gram for gram trans fat is the most harmful fat of all, so whatever you switch to is an improvement," said Julie Greenstein, deputy director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"Some (restaurants) have switched, but there are still many, many, many that have not switched, and that's why we think that other states need to pass laws similar to NYC's," she said.
According to Greenstein, the example of New York will be followed in the fall by the city of Philadelphia, while a dozen US states are warming to the idea.
In Europe, where consumption of greasy foods is not as widespread, Denmark has introduced limits on trans fats.
But New York is already facing another battle, which involves putting information about calorie contents on menus.
This law, which also takes effect Sunday, concerns restaurants using standardized food, for which calorie information is already available, especially in fast-food restaurants.
On June 15, the NYSRA went to court, supported by big chains such as McDonald's.
The president of the NYSRA, Rick Sampson, believes the industry has been turned into a scapegoat.
"It's feel-good legislation, but it won't have any impact on obesity," said Sampson. He said that for the last 17 or 18 years the US Food and Drug Administration has required all food to have the nutritional information labeled on the back of products.
"If that listing was working, why do we still have obesity today?," Sampson asked.
But the New York health commissioner disagreed.
"It is unfortunate that some restaurants are so ashamed of what they are serving that they would rather go to court than present this important information where their customers can readily see it," Frieden said.
The city indicated it would not impose any fines on violators of the new rules on either trans fats or calories until October1.
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