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Cambridge Bids to Ban Artery-Clogging Trans Fats in Eateries

Cambridge Bids to Ban Artery-Clogging Trans Fats in Eateries

By Karen Klinger

City officials are poised to enact a ban on the use of artificial trans fats in all restaurants and other establishments licensed to serve prepared foods, with the new law phased in over three months starting July 1, 2009.

At a public hearing May 29, Claude Alix-Jacob, the city’s chief public health officer, called use of trans fats “unnecessary, unhealthy and a preventative health risk.” He said the health department backs the ban because of evidence linking the substance to coronary heart disease, as well as the fact people often do not know if eateries use it.

The ban will affect more than 650 establishments in the city. They include bakeries, bars, company cafeterias, daycare centers, schools and universities, in addition to restaurants. The new regulation would not apply to food items in sealed packages bearing a “Nutrition Facts” label, except for those served in K-12 public and private schools.

Cambridge’s move follows the lead of New York City, which banned trans fats in 2006, as well as Brookline and Boston. Dr. Walter Willett, a member of the Cambridge Trans Fat Task Force, said other cities also are enacting bans as studies link trans fats to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, infertility and even dementia.

“There is a huge amount of evidence that trans fats are responsible for around a quarter of the heart attacks in the United States,” said Willett, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who also is backing state Rep. Peter Koutoujian’s effort to get the legislature to pass a statewide trans fat ban.

The main source of trans fats is hydrogenated vegetable oil, formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oil, hardening it. When used in fried foods such as French fries it helps stabilize flavors and can prolong the shelf life of baked goods such as cakes and cookies.

Researchers say trans fat boosts levels of so-called “bad” cholesterol, and unlike saturated fat—another kind doctors warn about—it also lowers levels of “good” cholesterol that can help keep arteries unclogged.

A health department survey found that nearly half of the food establishments in the city either have eliminated trans fats or never used them, while 29 percent said they use products containing the fats and 23 percent are unsure whether they do or not.

In recent years, numerous restaurant chains have eliminated or are phasing out trans fats, including Legal Seafoods, Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and McDonald’s, all of which have locations in Cambridge. Last July, Au Bon Pain said it had made its menu trans-fat-free and launched a website with in-depth nutritional information about its food.

Not to be outdone, the Canton-based Dunkin’ Donuts chain said last year it had developed an alternative cooking oil to make its doughnuts and more than 50 other menu items free of trans fats. The company claimed to be the first major chain to introduce doughnuts without the harmful fat, to favorable customer reaction.

With many restaurants in the city already in compliance, Cambridge has set up a year-long timetable to get the public on board with the new law and to train inspectors to enforce it.

The first phase of the ban will apply to cooking oils, shortenings and margarines used for frying food or in spreads. The second phase would take effect on Oct. 1, 2009 and apply to any other foods or ingredients containing trans fats.

Starting January 1, the city also will require that all foods served at city-sponsored events be trans-fat-free.

While the legislature still could agree to a statewide ban, Willett said it is important for Cambridge to go forward now. He noted that a number of cities enacted local smoking prohibitions before lawmakers passed a state smoking law.

“It’s really important to add momentum to a change that eventually could affect the whole food supply in the United States,” he said.