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Officials cook up recipe for trans fat ban

Los Angeles and L.A. County authorities are studying whether to bar hydrogenated vegetable oils as an ingredient in restaurant menu items.

January 24, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

The Seven Upper Bakery won't be cutting the signature ingredient, 7-Up, from its recipe for sweet, bundt-shaped cakes anytime soon.

But the bakery, in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, may have to change the brand of margarine it uses, said manager Seina Padilla, if Los Angeles County and the nation's second-largest city adopt restrictions on trans fat.

Padilla prepares the frosted lemon-lime cakes with margarine containing trans fat, a chemically modified substitute for saturated fat often used for frying and baking. It has been linked to heart disease.

"It is important to change the law if it is for people's health," Padilla said in Spanish.

Following the lead of New York City, Los Angeles County supervisors last month called for a feasibility study on banning trans fat from restaurants here, turning to public health organizations, community groups and restaurants for advice. The city of Los Angeles is looking into similar restrictions.

The change in policy could take the form of a disclosure law or menu labeling, but "the best of all possible worlds would be a ban," said county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who recommended the study, which supervisors are to receive later this month.

The New York City Board of Health last month adopted the nation's first major ban of trans fats in restaurants.

Communities across the country are weighing similar proposals.

Since last January, the FDA has required nutrition information on packaged foods to show trans fat content.

Public health groups say addressing its use in restaurants is the next logical step.

Trans fat is a compound created by chemically adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils. Food manufacturers have favored it because it gives baked and fried foods a more solid texture and a longer shelf life.

Research has shown that it raises "bad" cholesterol, lowers "good" cholesterol and increases the risk for heart disease. That has swayed many public health advocates in favor of a ban.

"Given the potential health benefits, it's a no-brainer," said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

"We want to pursue a strategy that we think will have the greatest impact," said Dr. Paul Simon, director of Health Assessment and Epidemiology with the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Eliminating trans fats countywide, he said, could reduce the number of heart attacks countywide by 10% to 20% over time.

The food service industry has viewed a trans fat ban with skepticism, said Jot Condie, president of the 22,000-member California Restaurant Assn. "We don't think that it is the role of local governments to ban food products," he said.

Restaurant chains have expressed concerns about keeping the taste of their food the same while changing the recipes. Nonetheless, many voluntarily are moving away from the use of trans fats.

KFC and Arby's have pledged to switch to trans-fat-free cooking oil by May, and in the last month Universal Studios theme parks and Starbucks have drastically reduced their use of trans fats.

"The private sector is going to find creative ways to ensure that their food products are equally tasty and that their profit margins are equally high serving healthy food," Goldstein said.

County officials acknowledge that the transition away from trans fats would not be easy for restaurants.

If the study concludes that trans fat is a public health issue, it is likely that any change in policy would apply countywide.

In that case, Burke said, trans fat restrictions would be incorporated into current county health inspections, which give restaurants letter grades on cleanliness. "It's not going to be a big problem for us to inspect and enforce it," she said.

As in New York, where the trans fat ban has not yet taken effect, Los Angeles County would give restaurants time to change their practices.

"Whatever we would recommend would have to be phased in. It's not something you can do overnight," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for the county.

"What is very clear is that trans fats are a very serious health issue. Trans fats do increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is the No. 1 killer in Los Angeles County," Fielding said.

But a trans fat ban alone would do little to combat obesity, he said. "It's replacing one kind of fat with another kind of fat. It would not reduce the number of calories."

At a Mid-Wilshire district doughnut shop recently, customers generally supported trans fat restrictions. But some were leery of an all-out ban.

"They should not ban trans fat. They should only adopt measures to make people aware of it," said Arthur Abrantes, 56, who meets friends at 8 a.m. every morning at New York Donuts.

Although he on occasion pairs his morning coffee with a cheese roll or doughnuts, being diabetic forces him to be health conscious.

He thinks others should do as he does: make their own decisions about what they eat.

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