War on fat: California trans-fat ban goes into effect Friday

Sacramento BeeDecember 28, 2009 

SACRAMENTO — California will bar restaurants from cooking with trans fat beginning New Year's Day, becoming the first state to crack down on the substance tied to clogged arteries, strokes and coronary heart disease.

The ban is hailed by supporters as a way to protect diners who routinely have not been aware of consuming trans fat at some restaurants because they don't see the meals cooked or the ingredients used.

"Consumers should rejoice because they can actually take family and friends out to eat and not worry about whether food will be cooked in trans fat," said Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, who proposed the ban.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the measure in 2008, but it will take effect Friday because restaurants were given a one-year adjustment period. Bakeries need not comply until January 2011.

Schwarzenegger, upon signing Mendoza's Assembly Bill 97, hailed it as "taking a strong step toward creating a healthier future."

California previously had barred trans fat in preparing food for schools.

Trans fat is created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, a process called hydrogenation meant to improve the shelf life and enhance the flavor of foods.

The process turns liquid oils into solid fats, such as shortening or stick margarine, which have been used in french fries, baked goods, crackers, candies, snack foods, fried foods and other items.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not restrict trans fat but says it can increase the risk of coronary heart disease by raising low-density lipoprotein – or bad cholesterol.

"You kind of get a double whammy – your bad cholesterol increases and your good cholesterol decreases," said Dr. Diane Sobkowicz, a cardiologist who directs the Women's Heart Program for the Sutter Heart and Vascular Institute.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat to less than 1 percent of total calories consumed daily.

Responding to health concerns, many restaurants had been reducing or eliminating trans fats even before passage of Mendoza's bill last year.

The New Year's Day deadline poses no major problem, said Daniel Conway, spokesman for the California Restaurant Association.

"This was an ingredient that was already being phased out, for the most part," he said. "I think most restaurants have had adequate time to comply."

McDonald's, Burger King, Rubio's and KFC, also known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, are among fast-food chains that do not cook with trans fats, officials said.

Larry Rusinko, Rubio's spokesman, said the firm made the change long ago without raising prices or sacrificing taste.

"We chose the zero-trans-fat canola oil because we thought it actually enhanced the flavor and quality of our products," he said.

KFC spokeswoman Laurie Schalow said the company chose a soybean-oil blend as a substitute and "we had it in stores for months and months and no one noticed."

Members of the chain's franchise board conducted an internal taste test on the old and new oils. "It was like, half picked one, half picked the other – they couldn't tell the difference," Schalow said.

Mai Pham, owner of Sacramento's Lemon Grass and La Bou restaurants, said she does not use trans fat at either one. Restaurants statewide are responding to demand for healthier products, she said.

"I would venture to say it's quite hard, after that law was signed, to go buy something with trans fat," Pham said of restaurants. "Everyone is switching."

California's new ban on restaurant oils, margarines and shortenings containing more than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving will be monitored by routine restaurant inspections already conducted by local health departments. Violators can be fined up to $1,000.

The California Restaurant Association opposed the legislation, contending that 75 percent of meals are consumed at home and that banning trans fats in restaurants would have no major impact on health statewide. Causes of obesity and heart risk extend far beyond restaurant kitchens into areas of personal food choices – portions, calories, carbohydrates – that are not affected by AB 97, the trade group says.

"If our goal here is to combat obesity or other health factors, I think we need to do it in a more comprehensive manner, rather than ingredient by ingredient," Conway said.

Rather than regulate cooking ingredients through a state-by-state political process, perhaps standards should be set nationwide by a regulatory agency, such as the FDA, that has more of a scientific background, Conway said.

Judith S. Stern, professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, said that barring restaurants from cooking with trans fat will not necessarily keep diners from ingesting the substance because it exists naturally in some dairy and food products, such as lamb.

"It's no silver bullet," she said of the new law.

The complexity of healthy dining, and relative risk of trans fat, is illustrated by this statement from the FDA's Web site:

"Some margarine contains more trans fat than butter – but that doesn't mean you should choose butter over margarine. The combined amount of saturated fat and trans fat, and the amount of cholesterol for butter is usually higher than it is for margarine."

Rather than imposing the new ban, Stern said she would prefer that California require all restaurants to label the calories on their menu items so diners can weigh options in making healthful decisions.

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, criticized the new law as an example of nanny government with little beneficial impact.

"Not every human problem deserves a political solution," he said. "That's the fallacy my colleagues engage in."

But Michael F. Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, D.C., counters that "government has a basic responsibility to promote the public's health."

Though California is the only state to bar restaurants from cooking with trans fat, Puerto Rico has done so, as have New York, Philadelphia, Boston and various other cities, Jacobson noted.

In their homes, Californians can decide whether to cook with trans fats because their existence and amount have been required by the federal government on product labels since 2006.

Similar choice has not been available to restaurant diners, Jacobson said.

"You'll notice that restaurants that use partially hydrogenated oil – trans fat – don't put up signs saying, 'Our foods contain partially hydrogenated oil that promotes heart disease,' " he said.

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