Sunday, March 04, 2007

Since so many of you have asked, here is my take on the Trans Fat ban in NYC Restaurants.

The current movement to ban Trans fat in New York City is a huge victory for the general public. Though I fully support a trans fat ban and hope they are banned world wide, I disagree with the legislation designed to punish the small fry--- restaurants and cafes, for the misdeeds of the big fish. This is just the tip of the iceberg. If trans fats are to be eliminated from all foods as I believe they should, a composite approach is needed.

According to one estimate, up to 40% of the items in an American supermarket contain trans fats. In restaurants, the number of items that contain trans fats is also very high. I am sure most of us have eaten trans fat numerous times in the last week. Some of the culprits are prebreaded foods, fried foods, doughnuts, processed cheeses, butter substitutes, fryer oil, griddle oil, frosting, muffins (even “healthy” ones), scones, breads, desserts, ice creams, pies, tarts, wraps, salad dressings, tortillas, rolls, imitation cheese (that runny orange stuff served on “nachos”), puff pastry, cannoli shells---the list goes on! How did you fare? If you eat out, I’ll bet you have a little trans fat almost everyday as does most of America. This is because the hydrogenated vegetable fats which provide most dietary trans fat are a mainstay of the food industry - a cheap bulking agent perfect for churning out inexpensive processed products, with a long shelf life and a luxurious 'mouth feel'. Trans fat (and high fructose corn syrup, check these pages in 3 or 4 years for they are the next to go) is the processed food behind processed foods.

Most restaurants and caf├ęs that offer food at inexpensive prices have to rely on prepared foods. Prepared foods allow restaurants to keep prices down by extending shelf life and eliminating costly labor. If a restaurant owner, small mom and pop deli, pizza shop or diner can order from their distributors pre-made foods that don’t spoil rapidly and the price is cheaper, that is what they will do to survive and compete. It’s only natural. But legislating the end user, the restaurants, is absurd. It is like filling the candy bowl with sweets and warning your toddler not to eat any. If the legislators really wanted the products off the market they would ban them from the source.
Since trans fat is proven to be a nemesis that ultimately costs our nation billions in heath care dollars, the developers of the stuff, the corn and soybean industry, should be held accountable. So why is it that the ban has been directed at the end retailer? It is an absurd premise. Why wasn’t the logical step taken, to go after the manufactures of the fats. The answer is a simple; because trans fat is a byproduct of the byproducts of America’s most powerful corporations, Cargill, Monsanto and ADM.

Supermarket consumers can know if a food contains trans fat by looking at the ingredient list on the food label. If the ingredient list includes the words "shortening," "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil", “margarine” or "hydrogenated vegetable oil," the food contains trans fat. In the food service industry, it should be getting easier, but it isn’t. The ingredient lists on wholesale packing is sketchy. Some labels are on the bulk case, and some are on each package within the case. Packaging laws to provide better labeling for restaurant products have been updated, but it is still very iffy.
To an immigrant business owner whose second, or third language is English—what does this mean: “may contain one or more of the following; hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated cottonseed, soybean, corn or sunflower oil”. Try to get the information from a salesperson or distributor. It is almost impossible. I have visited the websites of the #1 and #2 food distributors to restaurants in the Hudson Valley ( Sysco and US Foods) to obtain ingredient information on their products. Neither of their web ordering catalogs lists ingredients, though both have a dedicated line for this. The message was simple, “Ingredient information not available at this time”. How in the world is a small businessperson supposed to adhere to the rules, when the multimillion-dollar companies supplying them don’t come clean. Combine this with the marketing---every week there are scores of “money saving” or “profit increasing” items on sale that are by and large foods with trans fats—and the small business person must be certainly flummoxed. Any reasonable person would have to conclude that if there were really a trans fat ban in restaurants, the developersof these products would be the first to be regulated. But it is not happening because of the obvious. The player with the biggest lobbying budget wins and the restaurants are literally on the bottom of the food chain in this regard.

Ric Orlando
New World Home Cooking Co.
Saugerties, NY
Author of We Want Clean Food, CF Press 2004

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