New York Restaurants Urged to Eliminate Trans Fats

Times Staff Writer

No one would ever mistake a place teeming with steakhouses and French restaurants -- not to mention street vendors hawking beef-laden hot dogs and margarine-covered bagels -- as being particularly health-conscious.

But if the city's health department has its way, New York will become the first American metropolis whose restaurants do away with trans fats, chemically engineered ingredients in cooking oils that act like cement in the human heart.

Trans fats are created when unsaturated vegetable oils undergo a chemical process known as hydrogenation. That gives the oils a solid form that is essential to holding together a cookie or achieving the golden crisp of French fries.

Trans fats, known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, were developed years ago to replace saturated fats.

Scientists later discovered that trans fats, common in such things as baked goods and fried chicken, were even worse for the heart.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has targeted trans fats in grocery stores. Beginning Jan. 1, food makers must disclose levels of trans fats on nutrition labels.

But with no similar requirement for meals at restaurants, the health department last week urged the 26,400 in New York to substitute healthier cooking oils.

"It's good for business," said Dr. Sonia Angell, the health department's director of cardiovascular disease prevention and control. "Good health is a selling point."

Several restaurant owners and managers -- some who knew of the effort and some who didn't -- said the voluntary plan sounded like a good idea. But don't expect trans fats to disappear from menus.

The biggest obstacle is the potential difficulty of ditching oils with trans fats and ensuring that the resulting doughnuts will taste as good.

Some restaurateurs didn't even know whether their offerings contained trans fats.

Jack Cameron, manager of Les Halles in Midtown, wasn't sure how his chef cooked his French fries, which one Zagat reviewer rhapsodized as "transcendent frites."

Cameron and others said customers came precisely because they're not selling health foods.

"This restaurant is a place to go and splurge, and you're not concerned about health issues," he said.

Toy Dupree, executive pastry chef at Amy's Bread, said: "I don't think that we should be the food police. Each individual should make up their own mind about what they do and do not want to eat."

John Behrens, owner of Grilled Cheese NYC, said he didn't use trans fats but said that was partly due to luck because the soybean oil he chose for his fries happened not to have any. "My conscience is clean because there's a label," he said.

Some New Yorkers welcomed any effort to rid restaurants of trans fats.

Deepa Chand, an investment banker from Brooklyn, said she screened out items with trans fats in the grocery store but never thought about doing so in a restaurant. Interviewed as she left the Little Pie Co. of the Big Apple, Chand said with a sheepish grin that she was carrying a small sour cream apple walnut pie. "I got this tiny one, which will be about four days for us," she said.

Julie Castillo of Manhattan, who works at a pension fund, said she once asked a waiter if her meal had any trans fats.

"He said, 'There's none in there, but if you find one, I'll take it out.' "

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