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Ban Trans Fats? That Takes the Cake

Times Staff Writer

Teddy Papaoiannou grew up in Manhattan diners, and he can remember when a green vegetable was exotic -- a gesture almost suburban in its healthfulness. Over the years, the sands shifted. Iceberg lettuce receded; romaine emerged. In its latest iteration, his family’s diner offers mesclun.

Even so, Papaoiannou was caught flat-footed last week when he learned that New York health officials plan to ban the use of hydrogenated vegetable oil in city restaurants. Stunned, he walked to the kitchen of the Skylight Diner to read lists of ingredients on butter, on margarine, on baked goods.

“I’ll tell you one thing. The American public doesn’t like to be told what to do,” said Papaoiannou, 34, adding that the Skylight stopped using hydrogenated oil for frying three years ago. Just then his glance rested on a rack of cakes, and he winced. “I don’t have the recipe for what the baker makes,” he said.

Similar tremors have been going through New York’s dining circles since Tuesday, when the Health Department announced a proposal to eliminate artificial trans fats from the city’s restaurants over an 18-month period. Even among upscale restaurants that do not use such oil, a philosophical question arises: Should the government prohibit restaurants from serving foods known to cause heart disease? And if trans fats go the way of indoor smoking, what’s next? Sugar? Bacon? Marrow?

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If the Board of Health votes in favor of the ban in December, New York will become the first large city in America to prohibit restaurants from using artificial trans fats, commonly contained in vegetable oils, margarines and shortenings.

Similar measures have passed in Denmark and in Tiburon, Calif., just north of San Francisco -- but neither place is anything like New York, a city of 24,600 restaurants whose residents seem to rely on takeout food for basic sustenance.

It didn’t take more than a few days before culinary New York began to push back. On eGullet, an online forum for food cognoscenti, one man posited that the whole thing had been engineered by “the olive oil cartel.” Another wondered if a black market in trans fats would emerge: “Who has the time to go all the way uptown for a case of fat?” But most comments were serious, worries that the sacred zone of the kitchen has been breached.

“It’s dangerous when, beyond the realm of food safety, government steps in to tell us what foods are good.... Chicago has a ban on foie gras; maybe it will be butter in Seattle, salt in Minneapolis, bacon in Miami,” said Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America, which has partnered with Harvard Medical School to study ways to reduce trans fats.

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Artificial trans fats are created when food manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil to make it solid, like shortening or stick margarine. Hydrogenated oils have a long shelf life and an unusually high smoke point, which allows for quicker, hotter frying, leaving foods juicy and crisp at the same time. Fast-food restaurants use oils with artificial trans fats to cook French fries, and manufacturers use them to extend the shelf life of cookies and crackers.

Although trans fats were once recommended as a substitute for animal fats, researchers now warn that they are a leading cause of heart disease. The Health Department cites studies that show substituting safer oils can reduce the risk of heart disease by 6%.

New York health officials spent the last year pressuring restaurants to voluntarily cut down on trans fats, but inspections in 2005 and 2006 showed no reduction; each survey found that 50% of restaurants were frying and baking with trans fats. If the new law is approved, restaurants will have six months to switch to oils low in trans fat; within 18 months, all food will have to contain less than half a gram per serving or the restaurant will face fines and other penalties.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is throwing his weight behind the ban. Last week he compared it to the city’s 1960 ban on lead paint, which preceded a nationwide ban by 18 years.

Jonathan Fielding, L.A. County’s director of public health, said New York’s move was “a courageous and pioneering thing.” He said his department had not determined whether to establish a voluntary policy or a regulatory one.

New York health officials say diners will not notice a substitution of alternatives like corn oil or canola oil. But detractors say the taste and shelf-life of hydrogenated oils will be a big loss.

“A lot of things that taste great in the outer boroughs taste like they do because of trans fats,” said Josh Ozersky, author of “Meat Me in Manhattan: A Carnivore’s Guide to New York.” “This is really going to impact the poor, the proletarian in the city, not the folks who dine uptown and already go to places where they give you olive oil to dunk your bread.”

Restaurant owners responded indignantly, often as a matter of principle. Kenny Shopsin, who owns a cafe in the West Village, became so animated that much of his language was unprintable. It was 10 a.m., and he was in the middle of adding four varieties of fat to an enchilada: Peanut oil bubbled in a tub; olive oil was soaking into a tortilla; clarified butter puddled on the grill; cheese was liquefying.

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Shopsin has not used hydrogenated oil for years and noted that “there is no defense of trans fat.”

But he said the ban would tread on the rights of his customers, who studiously avoid the healthy options on his menu. “They’re taking away our right to be stupid, which is our primary American right,” he said.

Most diners interviewed said they weren’t sure what trans fats were in the first place. It’s a funny thing, said Stephen O’Connor, 56, who was hunched over a racing form at the Cheyenne Diner on 33rd Street. When he was growing up, O’Connor said, people “weren’t concerned about their health. They just were healthy or they weren’t.”

O’Connor’s own approach to nutrition centers on the idea of equilibrium: Although his wife warns him against eating too much salt, he reassures her that its ill effects will be neutralized by eating an equal amount of sugar. As for chemical preservatives, he is in favor of them.

“Years ago, back in the 1890s, they didn’t have preservatives,” he said.

“Then you got a bad piece of meat and all of a sudden you were dead as a doornail.”

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ellen.barry@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.


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