Trans Fat Ban Made New Yorkers Healthier, Science Proves

Big Brother is not usually very welcome in the kitchen, but the fact is that outlawing trans fat in some counties has reduced heart trouble

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Burekas, an Israeli favorite, are typically made with trans fat, and the salad on the site can't change that fact.
Burekas, an Israeli favorite, are typically made with trans fat, and the salad on the site can't change that fact.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Big Brother is automatically associated with nefarious intent, but governments meddling in our meals could save us. A new study that compares counties in New York shows that communities where trans fats have been banned from restaurant foods – not even from food chains in general – have significantly healthier hearts.

The scientists checked data on communities with and without bans and checked hospitalizations for heart attack and stroke in those communities per capita, report researchers at the University of Chicago and Yale in JAMA Cardiology.

"The results are impressive, given that the study focused on trans fatty acid bans in restaurants, as opposed to complete bans that included food bought in stores," stated senior author Tamar S. Polonsky. "If we enact a more complete restriction on trans fatty acids, it could mean even more widespread benefits for people long term."

Trans fats, or trans-unsaturated fatty acids, are rare in nature but common in western cuisine, though nobody can think of any benefit they bring to living beings, other than to food manufacturers. Consuming just 5 grams a day is associated with a 23% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease, says the World Health Organization.

How common are trans fats? Well, they are found in margarine, for instance, as well as frozen doughs and most fried foods, really. However in 2015, the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration ruled once and for all that industrial trans-fats, not the rare natural kind, would no longer be considered "GRAS" – Washington-speak for not "generally recognized as safe". The FDA gave food manufacturers three years to phase it out.

Meanwhile, not waiting for the Man in Washington, some communities, including in New York City, at the time led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, banned trans fats from restaurants, enabling convenient comparison.

So the scientists compared outcomes for people living in New York counties with and without the trans fat restrictions. The researchers checked on hospital heart attack and stroke admissions from 2002 and 2013 and lo! Three or more years after Big Brother kicked out trans fat from restaurants, communities with the bans had significantly fewer hospitalizations for heart attacks and strokes – a decline of 6.2%.

"The decline in events reached statistical significance three or more years after restrictions were implemented," the researchers drily explain.

"It is a pretty substantial decline," stated the lead author Eric Brandt of Yale, adding: "Our study highlights the power of public policy to impact the cardiovascular health of a population."

Why would anybody use trans fats, anyway? The short answer is that hydrogenated oil, or trans fat, is solid at room temperature, not liquid. It has a longer shelf life than liquid oil. Altogether it is more convenient for food manufacturers to use. That's pretty much it.

Pro-margarine protest: A more innocent ageCredit: AP

Meanwhile, you can still commonly find industrial trans fats in fried foods and baked goods, processed stuff like ready-made cake frosting in a can and frozen burekas.

Its consumption has been associated with heightened risk of heart disease, which remains the leading cause of death in most countries, and a host of metabolic conditions.

If you are eating in America you should know that that the FDA allows companies to label up to 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving in food as zero grams, which can be misleading. The Mayo Clinic points out that although you may think you're eating somthing that has zero or only small amounts of trans fat, by eat several things in this low trans fat category and you could soon be accruing critical amounts.

Israel too knew that trans fats are a bad thing. The University of Haifa blazed a trail in Israeli academia by outlawing foods containing the stuff for sale on its campus in 2014. That same year, the Knesset began forcing food manufacturers to list trans fats on all food packaging.

At some point the legislator is likely to ban the substance from food manufacture outright, say experts. But Israel has been known to be sluggish on public health issues – such as the ramifications of heavily depending on desalinated water. Earlier this year, Israelis were surveyed for iodine levels and the discovered deficiencies shocked scientists: 85 percent of pregnant women were found to suffer from deficient iodine intake and the same goes for 62 percent of school-age children.

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