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Trans fats transformed

The fatty acids were once seen as a necessary evil, but now not even the food industry will defend them.

January 06, 2007

TRANS FATTY acids are like ugly children. No one can love them except a mother -- and in this case, the mother is a food industry that has relied on them for decades. Lately, however, there are signs that this mother's love is not unconditional.

Starbucks this week joined the short but growing list of restaurants that are eliminating or reducing their use of trans fats, a list that also includes KFC (which even removed the word "Fried" from its name) and Taco Bell. Trans fats have also been banned in New York City restaurants.

Americans are forever torn between cheap fast food and healthy nutritious food. Trans fats clearly belong in the first group. They are found most commonly in hydrogenated oil, which is slow to turn rancid and thus less expensive to use. It's also solid at room temperature, a convenience, and turns out rich-tasting baked goods and crispy deep-fried ones.

But trans fats also raise bad cholesterol levels and lower good ones. These failings are making consumers rethink if not revise their fast-food cravings for the umpteenth time in recent years.

It would be nice to imagine that this newfound consumer awareness was what prompted the health-conscious conversion of many fast-food chains. A more likely scenario is New York City's recent ban on trans fats in eateries and the threat in California of a similar ban, which the Legislature may consider this year.

A regulatory solution to this problem, like a crunchy, well-salted French fry, is tempting. Yes, Americans are perfectly capable of making their own personal health decisions. But trans fats, unlike cigarettes, aren't so obviously a matter of individual choice. In many cases, diners may not even know they're eating them.

Packaged foods, such as peanut butter, must list their trans-fat content and so allow consumers to make an informed choice. Yet even in packaged foods, it can be hard to tell where the triglyceride boosters lurk. Foods containing less than a half-gram per serving can legally list zero grams. Eat several servings, and the trans-fat pileup can easily exceed the American Heart Assn.'s recommended limit of 2 grams in the average 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Eating out trans-fat free, meanwhile, is almost impossible for even a savvy consumer, short of a full ingredients list and nutrition label for each item. At some restaurants, such a brochure may be longer than the phone book.

Whether the impetus comes from marketing smarts or looming government threat, it would be cheaper for restaurants -- and healthier for their patrons -- if the only thing they had to know about trans fats was that they were absent from the food they were serving and eating.

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