Good news from the nanny state: Compelling restaurants to cut the trans fat content of their food has a positive effect on public health.
Trans fat that does not occur naturally in meat or dairy products is artificially produced by rendering liquid oils solid. That’s useful in baked goods, and lengthens a product’s shelf life. But it also presents a greater risk to heart health than other forms of fat, such as unsaturated and monosaturated fat.
In the hope of informing consumers and encouraging better food choices, the federal government required that packaged food labels disclose the amount of trans fat contained per serving as of 2006. Restaurant food proved to be a stickier wicket.
According to the Associated Press, Americans, on average, get one-third of their calories from food prepared outside of their homes. When New York City mandated restrictions on artificial trans fat in restaurant meals, kitchens had to alter recipes to ensure that food contained no more than 0.5 grams per serving.
In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers surveyed fast-food chain customers for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene between 2007 and 2009, a period covering pre- and post-trans fat limitations. Nearly 15,000 meals were studied, and the results were significant: The amount of trans fat in each lunch sold decreased by an average 2.4 grams after the ban. The largest drop was recorded at hamburger chains, followed by Mexican food outlets and fried chicken stores.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Americans' trans fat consumption has dropped by more than half over the last decade, thanks to the combination of nationwide food-labeling and community restaurant restrictions such as the measures taken in New York. Because it’s not cost effective for chain restaurants to have different recipes for different stores, nutritional changes can affect many fast-food consumers throughout the country.
Despite resistance from the restaurant industry, the New York businesses were able to adapt to more healthful recipes without sacrificing taste, variety or profit. As AP noted, the study also suggests that restaurants didn't just replace one unhealthful ingredient for another; there was only a small increase in saturated fat.
Many processed foods still contain huge amounts of trans fat, such as microwave popcorn, frozen pizza and chips, and no single effort can address all of America’s unhealthful indulgences. But in addition to its implications for heart health, the study results give impetus to the FDA’s desire to address America’s obesity epidemic. The agency hopes to finalize requirements for many restaurants to post calorie counts next to menu items. You can still eat poorly, but at least ignorance won’t be your excuse.