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Legislating the stomach? For NYC diners, health concerns trump trans fat ban fears

NEW YORK — Yes, said Toni Lewis, as she caught a quick dinner on the run at McDonalds before her child’s piano lesson. Maybe New York City IS going too far telling people what they can and can’t put into their stomachs. But you know what?
    ‘‘I welcome the intrusion,’’ she said. ‘‘This is New York. People eat out a lot. We don’t have a choice. We need someone to make it a healthier proposition.’’
    It was hard to find consumers who felt much differently in the hours leading up to Tuesday’s Board of Health vote to ban artificial trans fats in restaurants, the first such ban in the nation. It appeared that for many New Yorkers, health concerns trumped fears of a ‘‘nanny state,’’ of the food police, of Big Brother supervising our stomachs.
    ‘‘I don’t care about what might be politically correct and what’s not,’’ said Murray Bader, nursing a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts on Tuesday morning. ‘‘I want to live longer!’’
    The 72-year-old Manhattan resident called the ban a ‘‘wakeup call’’ for a public often unaware of the risks of what they’re eating. ‘‘This stuff clogs up your vessels,’’ he said of the artificial fats. ‘‘I’m a borderline diabetic, and I want to keep it that way — borderline.’’
    Trans fats are believed harmful in a number of ways, contributing to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. One way they threaten the heart is by raising bad cholesterol and lowering the good kind. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a common form of trans fats, is used for frying and baking and turns up in a host of processed foods: cookies, pizza dough, crackers and pre-made blends like pancake mix.
    ‘‘It’s basically a slow form of poison,’’ says David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center. ‘‘I applaud New York City and frankly, I think there should be a nationwide ban.’’
    Not everyone agrees with Katz — he’s gotten angry e-mails calling him and colleagues the ‘‘food police’’ and saying, ‘‘If I want to eat trans fats, that’s my inalienable right.’’ To which, he says, he responds: ‘‘Would you want the burden of asking your restaurant whether there’s lead in the food? Whether there’s arsenic in the bread? For all I know, maybe arsenic makes bread more crusty. But it’s poison.’’
    Some industry representatives were not happy with the ban. E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said the city had overstepped its authority by ordering restaurants to abandon an ingredient permitted by the FDA.
    ‘‘This is a legal product,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re headed down a slippery slope here.’’
    The Board of Health, which passed the ban unanimously, did give restaurants a break by loosening the deadline for compliance. Restaurants will be barred from using most frying oils containing trans fats by July and will have another year to eliminate trans fats from all of their foods.
    The ban, which was advocated by health-conscious Mayor Michael Bloomberg, follows a national requirement beginning this past January that companies list trans-fat content on food labels. Efforts are also being made to reduce the trans-fat content of snacks in school vending machines.
    It’s the danger a bad diet poses to children that has experts the most worried. It’s also what worries Kathy Ramirez, a 26-year-old New York mother who takes her toddler to McDonalds every week. It’s why she approves of the ban, and also of a related measure passed Tuesday, requiring restaurants that already disclose calorie counts — mostly chain restaurants — to post them right on the menu.
    ‘‘It’s hurting us, all this fat, but the kids really like it,’’ said Ramirez, pointing to 3-year-old Amber, who’d just finished her dinner. ‘‘It would be better to know what we’re getting.’’
    (McDonalds Corp. has been experimenting with healthier oil blends but has not committed to a full switch yet. Wendy’s International Inc. introduced a zero-trans fat oil in August and Yum Brands Inc.’s KFC and Taco Bell said they also will cut trans fats from their kitchens.)
    At Le Perigord, a tony and sedate French restaurant favored by diplomats from the nearby United Nations, owner Georges Briguet is a big fan of the trans-fats ban, and even says he’d consider putting calorie counts on his own upscale menu — though it’s only chains with standardized items that would be affected.
    ‘‘In this country there are so many obese people — it really is a disgrace,’’ Briguet says. ‘‘It’s important for the health of the population to ban these artificial fats. When I was growing up in France, my mother never even gave me a French fry. We don’t have a fryer here. We just sautee our potatoes in some good butter.’’
    The mayor, Briguet added, ‘‘is just as responsible for the health of someone eating the wrong food as for someone who kills himself smoking.’’ Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned smoking in New York’s bars and restaurants during his first term.
    The public acceptance of that smoking ban, which at the time was a major source of worry to restaurant owners, shows why food chains should be embracing the current New York ban, says Tim Zagat, publisher of the hugely popular Zagat’s restaurant guides.
    ‘‘You can’t put lead in your food, right? With trans fats, you’re not going to die as fast, but they are clearly bad for you and people don’t even know when they’re eating them,’’ Zagat says.
    ‘‘If I were a restaurant, I would comply as quickly as I possibly could,’’ he said. ‘‘Some fast-food chains are in the middle of the railroad track right now. They’d better rethink their business models. This is the next big issue in the United States.’’
    ———
    Associated Press writer David B. Caruso contributed to this report.

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