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Fat chance

Raise your hands above your head and step away from the doughnut. If the California Legislature has its way, such artery-clogging treats will be illegal, at least as they’re currently made. Lawmakers this week approved a bill that would ban restaurants and bakeries from using trans fats.

Laws that protect consumers from their own unhealthful habits have more than a whiff of the nanny state about them, though that hasn’t stopped cities such as New York and Philadelphia from banning trans fats. California would take those municipal ordinances a step further by becoming the first state to forbid them if the bill, AB 97, is signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Trans fats lurk in partially hydrogenated oil, thick lard-like goo that is beloved by the food industry because it maintains its shelf life for long periods without refrigeration, enhances texture for some foods and is cheap. Scientific evidence is strong that it’s also terrible for you, increasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

The state legislation would be costly for restaurateurs, and its health benefits are questionable. Eateries would be almost certain to replace partially hydrogenated oil with other types of fat that are only moderately better. Palm and coconut oils, for example, are very high in saturated fat and were themselves targeted by health experts before hydrogenated oil replaced them on dietitians’ hit lists. Moreover, there’s reason to worry that if the ban makes Californians believe restaurant fare is healthier, they’ll load their plates with even more fatty food. There is zero difference in calorie content between trans fats and other fats: You’ll get just as chubby eating cookies made with butter as with hydrogenated-oil-laden shortening.

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Consumers are wise to be careful about what they eat, and they have a right to know what’s in their entrees. At the same time, people who chow down on French fries and pastries are perfectly aware that they’re not eating health food, and don’t particularly care. That’s why it’s usually a better idea for regulators to require more labeling of foods than to ban them outright.

SB 1420 from Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) and Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) is a better approach than AB 97. It would require big restaurant chains to include nutritional information on their menus, including the amount of saturated and trans fats. That would encourage them to serve leaner food, allow the health-conscious to make better choices and let others pig out to their hearts’ discontent.


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