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Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Will trans fats be coming off local menus?

Seattle Times staff reporter

The skinny on trans fats


Here's a primer on what trans fats are, where you'll find them and how they affect your body.

What are trans fats? Artificial trans-fatty acids, or trans fats, are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to transform liquid oils into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and stabilizes the flavor of foods that contain these fats. Trans fats can be found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. A small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some meat and dairy products.

What do trans fats do to my body? Trans fats raise the LDL or "bad" cholesterol that increases your risk for coronary heart disease, according to the Federal Food and Drug Administration.

How do I know if trans fats are in my food? Since January, the Food and Drug Administration has required food labels on all packaged foods to list trans fat (it has required that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol be listed on food labels since 1993). Ingredients that indicate the presence of trans fat include partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Source: Federal Food and Drug Administration

At least two public-health agencies this week will begin discussing whether to ban artificial trans fats in Washington restaurants, echoing concerns of New York City leaders that the ingredient often used in foods from onion rings to pie crust is a threat to public health and should be banned.

Leaders of the Washington state Board of Health and Public Health — Seattle & King County say New York's new ban on artificial trans fats in eateries is a step in the right direction and is boosting awareness of the ingredient's link to heart disease and stroke. Health and nutrition groups including the American Heart Association say artificial trans fats can clog arteries and raise the body's level of LDL or "bad" cholesterol.

"It's an unnecessary food additive that causes tremendous harm," said Dorothy Teeter, interim director and health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County. "I think if the general population actually knew what was in some of the foods that they eat, they wouldn't want to be eating them, either."

Artificial trans fats, introduced in the early 1900s, are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to make it stable. This hydrogenation process gives certain foods a desirable taste, shape and texture that restaurants say is challenging to replicate with trans-fat-free recipes. At home, you can find trans fats in many crackers, cookies, margarines and shortenings.

As of last week, New York City's 24,000 restaurants have six months to stop frying foods in oils that contain high levels of artificial trans fats and 18 months to eliminate it from the rest of their menus. The ban does not apply to naturally occurring trans fats found in some meats and dairy or food sold in grocery stores.

While some restaurants across the country are eliminating trans fats from their menus voluntarily, many oppose an all-out ban on the substance. Cooking oils with trans fats have a longer shelf life, which saves restaurants money in an industry with wafer-thin profit margins. Their composition enables cooks to fry many items in the same oil without a lot of crossover flavor. And customers are used to the taste.

The National Restaurant Association also is concerned that demand for trans-fat-free oils will outstrip supply. However, trade groups for makers of such oils, such as the National Sunflower Association, say they'll have enough to go around when the ban goes into effect.

New York's ban is the latest effort across the country to the encourage the public to consume less trans fat. In January, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring food labels on packaged foods to list the amount of trans fat in addition to overall fat content. Health advocacy groups are pushing to reduce the trans-fat content of snacks in school vending machines. City leaders in Chicago have discussed a ban, and earlier this year Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels called for health officials to look into the issue as part of the city's efforts to promote healthful eating.

Washington health officials say it likely will take months of study and debate before the state is able to decide whether to follow suit, in part because of the impact on the restaurant industry, which says the cost of going trans-fat free could put some eateries out of business. In the meantime, health officials intend to educate the public as much as possible about trans fats, and are studying the best ways to get the word out on a limited budget. But with consumers growing increasingly conscious of what's in their food, some restaurants are changing on their own to please customers, just as they adjusted to the Atkins-diet-induced anti-carbohydrate craze by offering more protein and less bread and pasta.

Major national chains including Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby's, Wendy's and Taco Bell all are in the process of removing trans fats from all or part of their menus. Snack-food giant Frito Lay now cooks its chips in trans-fat-free sunflower oil.

Closer to home, seafood chain Ivar's has shifted to trans-fat free cooking oils and burrito chain Taco Del Mar aims to offer a trans-fat-free menu by March. The transition has taken about a year, said David Huether, Taco Del Mar's president and chief operating officer. The Seattle-based burrito chain had to work with vendors to tweak recipes for items like refried beans to eliminate trans fat yet maintain familiar flavors.

"This is an issue that's important to our customer base," Huether said.

Huether says he can empathize with the stress felt by smaller restaurant owners in New York City. Chain restaurants buy more supplies and tend to have more bargaining power with vendors while single-site restaurants, such as a family-owned burger stand, could end up paying more to obtain trans-fat-free products and cooking oils to make the deadline, he said.

Trends show trans-fat-free foods likely will only grow in popularity, said Michelle Barry, vice president of consumer insights and trends at the Hartman Group, a Bellevue-based consulting and market research firm. The trend-setting core group of American consumers that marketers study to predict future buying patterns has grown increasingly selective about the foods it eats, she said.

"Trends emanate from that 6 percent. We like to study what they're eliminating from their diets. It trickles out to the mainstream," Barry said.

Now that secondhand smoke has been snuffed out from most public gathering places in Washington, improving nutrition is among the most prevalent public-health issues, said Craig McLaughlin, executive director of the state Board of Health.

"You have to start looking at obesity and overweight. This is the next frontier and it happened more quickly than I expected."

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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