A: The New York City Board of Health has voted to limit the amount of trans fatty acids (TFAs) served in the city's restaurants. And, yes, the prohibition would apply to all restaurants including McDonald's and Burger King, the thousands of delis and diners found all over the city, as well as the fancy, high-priced establishments. As I understand it, the plan is to limit TFAs per serving to a half-gram, which is far less than the 5.8 grams of trans fats found in the typical American daily diet.
TFAs are found naturally in animal fats, particularly butter, but only in small quantities. But they are common, unnatural components of many processed fats, especially partially hydrogenated ones. Partial hydrogenation turns liquid oils into semisolid fats, much-loved by manufacturers of processed foods for their longer shelf lives. Margarine, vegetable shortening and most commercial baked goods contain these artificially hardened fats and, along with them, TFAs.
TFAs are just as bad if not worse for the heart and arteries than saturated fats. They increase total cholesterol, raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and lower HDL ("good") cholesterol. Beyond that, TFAs may have adverse effects on cell membranes and the immune system, and may promote cancer and aging.
Not surprisingly, New York's restaurant owners oppose the proposed ban. A year ago the city's Board of Health asked for a voluntary limit on TFAs and even ran training programs to educate restaurant operators about the health hazards these fats present. According to the New York Times, at the time the ban was proposed about half the city's restaurants were continuing to serve trans fats at the same levels as they had before the Board of Health launched its educational campaign.
If the plan is formally adopted in December 2006, as expected, New York would be the first large U.S. city to take such action, although Chicago is considering something similar. Under the present proposal, New York restaurants would have until July 2008 to make the switch.
I applaud the Big Apple's efforts to improve the health of its inhabitants (and that of the millions of tourists who visit each year). I'll be interested to see whether other municipalities follow New York's lead. I hope this move becomes a national trend.
Andrew Weil, M.D.