Bold New York City Health Department Proposals Praised

Bold New York City Health Department Proposals Praised

All restaurants in New York City would have to remove most artificial trans fat from foods, and the typical fast food restaurant would have to list calories for each item on its menu boards if two new proposed regulations in New York City are adopted. The proposals are winning plaudits from health advocates, including the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has been urging cities, states, and the federal government to take both of those actions. The proposals, put forward by the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, were announced at a meeting of the city’s Board of Health today.

The first proposal would limit artificial trans fat—the trans fat that is produced when oil is partially hydrogenated in a factory—in all New York City restaurants and food service outlets. Restaurants could either switch to healthier oils or use partially hydrogenated oils only to the extent that they contribute less than half a gram of trans per serving. Although small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in foods like milk and beef, most trans fat in the American diet comes from partially hydrogenated oil.

The American Heart Association recommends that Americans get no more than 1 percent of their calories from trans fat, which amounts to about 2 grams per day. A large order of McDonald’s French fries contains about 8 grams—or four days’ worth. In contrast, French fries at Wendy’s, Chili’s, and Ruby Tuesday are trans-fat-free since they’re fried in healthier vegetable oil blends.

“It makes perfectly good sense for health authorities to set limits on the amount of artificial trans fat in foods in the same way they set limits on various dyes, chemicals, or other additives in food,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Fortunately, as Wendy’s, Legal Sea Foods, and a few other chains and numerous food manufacturers have found, healthier alternatives to partially hydrogenated oil are available for every kind of food.”

CSPI first urged the Food and Drug Administration to revoke its approval of partially hydrogenated oil in 2004. Leading epidemiological researchers estimate that use of partially hydrogenated oil kills roughly 50,000 Americans—including about 1,500 New Yorkers—each year. A Chicago alderman recently proposed getting partially hydrogenated oil out of that city’s restaurants, but withdrew the measure in order to give chains more time to switch on their own. CSPI says restaurants have been much slower to get rid of partially hydrogenated oils than food manufacturers which, spurred by new trans fat labeling requirements, have reformulated many food products that used to include significant amounts of trans fat.

The second proposal advanced today by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would require all restaurants that currently make available calorie information for standardized menu items to list calories on menus and menu boards. Fast-food chains that have nutrition information on web sites, like McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Cosi would have to list calorie counts on their menu boards alongside the menu item and the price in all their New York City outlets.

Listing calories on menus would help people make more informed choices when eating out, according to CSPI. For instance, people might be surprised to learn that a large shake at McDonald’s (1,160 calories) has twice as many calories as a Big Mac (560). At Subway, most people wouldn’t assume that a 6-inch tuna sub actually has more calories (530) than a 6-inch roast beef (290).

“With people eating more and more of their meals away from home, putting calorie counts on menus and menu boards will help Americans watch their weight and encourage restaurant chains to add a wider variety of options,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “If chains already have this information, they should make it available to their customers when they’re deciding what to order instead of hiding it on a web site.”

CSPI has helped advance similar menu-labeling proposals in about a dozen state legislatures and in Congress. The federal bills are known as the Menu Education and Labeling, or MEAL, Acts. In the District of Columbia, a menu labeling bill enjoys majority support in the city council but has yet to come up for a vote.

The next step for the New York City proposals is a public hearing on October 30.

“The Board of Health and the Bloomberg administration deserve enormous credit for putting these urgently needed health measures on the front burner,” said Jacobson. “Reducing use of partially hydrogenated oils and putting calorie counts on menus are easy ways to help New Yorkers reduce their risks of heart disease and obesity.”

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