Trans fats unhealthful, but should they be banned?

Posted March 30, 2009, at 9:32 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state lawmaker wants Maine to follow the lead of Boston and New York City in prohibiting restaurants from cooking up food with artery-clogging trans fats.

Representatives of Maine’s restaurant industry said most commercial kitchens already are moving in that direction but that passage of an abrupt ban would cause unnecessary turmoil.

Trans fats are a type of fat often used in preparation of fried foods in order to enhance the flavor and, in some cases, increase the shelf life of a product. But these inexpensive, artificially produced fats have been linked to heart disease because they increase levels of bad cholesterol in the body while lowering levels of good cholesterol.

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Several major cities — including New York, Boston and Philadelphia — as well as the state of California already have banned or moved to phase out use of trans fats. And in 2006, the federal government also began requiring food manufacturers to include trans fat information on products’ nutritional labels.

Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, said those successful bans and some restaurants’ voluntary decisions to move away from trans fats show cooks can easily substitute more healthful fats into their recipes without destroying the end product. Webster’s bill, LD 916, would ban restaurants and bakeries from using trans fats beginning July 2010.

“No one misses this stuff once its gone,” Webster told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “Artificial fats no longer have a place in our diet and phasing them out is the first step.”

Trans fats are produced by a process known as hydrogenation, wherein hydrogen is injected into liquid oils, creating a solid fat. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend keeping consumption of trans fats as low as possible by carefully reading labels and choosing products that contain zero grams of trans fats.

Denise Whitley, Maine advocacy director for the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, said a recent study found that just a 2 percent increase in trans fat consumption increases women’s risk of cardiovascular disease by more than 20 percent.

More than two dozen cities, towns and states have enacted or are considering measures to deal with trans fats, she said.

But Dick Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, pointed out that a relatively small number of governments actually have enacted a ban on trans fats. That is because the food preparation industry is moving aggressively on its own to use what are now considered more healthful fats, he said.

Grotton agreed that trans fats are a health risk that should be removed from prepared food whenever possible. But he pointed out that Webster’s bill bans trans fats only in restaurant food and does nothing to reduce their availability in the grocery stores, where Mainers get the vast majority of their food.

He predicted passage of the bill now could have “extensive consequences” on an already struggling industry.

“It will require the reformulation of thousands of recipes and it will take time to complete,” Grotton said.

Rep. Brian Langley, an Ellsworth Republican who is also a chef and owner of the Union River Lobster Pot, told committee members that the bill would add more work to the plate of health inspectors who already are stretched thin. Langley said now is not a good time to consider a ban.

“Is this the time to impose increased regulation and fines of up to $1,000?” Langley said in a prepared statement. “The cost of compliance in both time and money adds a tremendous burden to the already struggling small-business owner.”

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said her agency fully supports the intent of the legislation because of the significant health threat posed by trans fats. But the bill as written contains no additional money to hire the inspectors needed to carry out enforcement, so Maine CDC came out neither for nor against the measure.

Webster said he understands critics’ contention that the government shouldn’t tell adults what they should and shouldn’t eat. But he said society’s indulgence in trans fats comes at a price.

“The fact is that it costs us because of MaineCare, it costs us because of high rates of disease in this state, and it costs us as taxpayers,” he said.

The committee has not yet scheduled a work session on LD 916.

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