In December, to the delight of many cardiologists and the dismay of many doughnut lovers, the New York City Board of Health voted to ban artificial trans fats from restaurants, school cafeterias, pushcarts, and almost every other food-service establishment it oversees, which includes most everything except hospitals. Trans fats don’t occur naturally in the things people like but feel guilty eating, or at least not at high levels (there are small proportions in the fat in meat and dairy products). But artificial ones are plentiful in commercial foods, because they are easy to use, cheaper than natural fats, and keep practically forever. Trans fats are made by pumping hydrogen gas into liquid fats usually in the presence of nickel so that they will remain solid at room temperature, like butter and lard; and they have the same wonderful properties in pie crusts, cookies, and cakes. Crisco, still generic for solid shortening made by partial hydrogenation (of cottonseed oil), soon became the “sanitary” choice for pie crust and fried chicken, making pastry almost as flaky and skin almost as crisp as lard does.
But starting in the 1970s, a time of general fat panic related to heart disease, trans fats began to look as bad for cholesterol levels as the dreaded saturated fats, and in the 1990s the picture got worse. Trans fats, long-term studies reported, not only raise “bad” cholesterol (LDL); they also lower “good” cholesterol (HDL)—which not even saturated fats do. They look about as bad for the arteries as a fat can be. A 2002 consensus report from the National Academies of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine called the relationship between trans-fat consumption and coronary heart disease “linear” and stated that the only acceptable level of trans fats in the diet was zero. The next year the Food and Drug Administration required food processors to list trans-fat levels on nutrition labels along with saturated fat. When the rule went into effect, in January 2006, public awareness of trans fats went up, and the stage was set for the New York City ban.
Corby Kummer visits a New York City doughnut landmark.
Thomas Frieden, New York’s health commissioner, was already unpopular among libertarians. An epidemiologist and doctor whose speciality is infectious disease, he advocates the blunt instrument of regulation, often over the current public-health approach to most problems, which emphasizes education programs that encourage people to make healthy choices. Frieden made international news by leading the charge to pass the city’s comprehensive smoking ban, which has been duplicated across the country and the world. He believes that government should make the healthful choice the default, and that eliminating trans fats will do that, just as fluoridating water and getting the lead out of paint did.
Why an outright ban? Asking nicely didn’t work. Starting in June of 2005, the city sent information on why and how to avoid trans fats to 30,000 restaurants and food-service establishments and to 200,000 clinics and community centers; it also provided training to 7,800 restaurant operators. A year later, the share of food-service establishments using trans fats—half—hadn’t budged. With the support of Michael Bloomberg, Frieden’s health-conscious boss, the city’s board of health passed the proposed ban.
Libertarians were newly displeased, as legislators in California and Massachusetts began calling for similar bans. Chicago, which last summer enacted a widely ridiculed (and flouted) ban on foie gras, was also said to have trans fats in its sights. Columnists began asking exasperated what-next questions: Salt, a perennial runner-up to fat in the sin sweepstakes? Sugar? Whole milk? Alcohol, again?
Boston, with a similarly activist commissioner and a bold, public-health-minded mayor, Thomas M. Menino, was reported to be the next large city considering a ban. That commissioner, John Auerbach, is my spouse, so I followed the debate closely. I attended a meeting of the Boston Public Health Commission board (a meeting open to the public and press) and listened to the drafters of the New York ban narrate a PowerPoint presentation by conference call. The board was interested in the practicalities of enforcing the ban. I was interested in the practicalities of how small-business owners could follow the new rules—and how cooks could give customers the flavors and textures they were used to.
The New York presenters were reassuring, if short on details. Restaurant inspectors would simply add questions about trans fats to their normal checklist, scanning menus for items likely to contain them—say, cake mixes and frozen french fries—and asking to see labels for all cooking fats. It would add just a few minutes to the usual hour-long inspection. As for telling restaurants how to substitute other fats and where to buy them, the health department planned to contract with culinary educators to teach at workshops and to staff technical-assistance help lines.
It seemed clear that restaurants would be left with plenty of questions, and I had a few of my own. I made an appointment to talk to Frieden, and to see several cooks whose businesses would be significantly affected by the ban. I also learned a lot about doughnuts— including that I like them more than can be good for me, whatever the fat.