A youthful forty-six, and thin, as you would expect, Frieden is both plainspoken and sure he is right. The morning I visited him, in the health department’s WPA-era headquarters in Lower Manhattan, he told me that he and his communications director, Geoffrey Cowley, had just been wondering why his initiatives were so frequently “mis-spun” as the work of the “nanny state.” He pre-sents himself more as an emergency repairman. Little of what he does, he said, “would be necessary if our health-care system worked—if every person had a doctor, continuity of care, and that doctor had access to their records.” Better labels are all well and good, but “we don’t want to exhort people to look at labels for trans fat,” he said. “We want people to walk into a restaurant and not worry there’s an artificial chemical in their food” that is killing them. A city trans-fat ban, he says, could prevent 500 premature deaths a year from heart disease.
I asked Frieden if he was trying to do what the federal government would not: force fast-food chains to remove trans fats. Kentucky Fried Chicken has already replaced its trans fats, as has Wendy’s; Disney, Starbucks, and other companies have also gotten on the bandwagon. But McDonald’s has been dragging its heels. It loudly announced, in 2002, that it would remove trans fats from all its food, but never got around to taking them out of its french fries—by far the biggest source, and the greatest challenge for texture (the original fat in McDonald’s french fries was the lard-like beef tallow). Now it and every other chain unwilling to abandon the New York City market will have to reformulate their menus, and given research costs and economies of scale, the changes are likely to be national, not just regional. “Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind,” Frieden said.
Wasn’t New York’s ban a case of governing the country from one city—and wasn’t it really aimed at obesity? Frieden emphatically rejected the idea, saying that his fiduciary responsibility was solely to the citizens of New York City. The ban was meant to reduce premature deaths from heart disease, no more and no less. And he wasn’t depriving people of pleasure. “We’re not going to desalinate New York,” he said, although he sounded as if he’d like to. “We’re not going to ban eggs and ham.” The science on trans fats, he said, had come clear slowly, as had the science on the effects of secondhand smoke. But once it did, it did decisively, and he had to act.
So far, the chains that have initiated trans-fat removal have been the ones whose image depends on health or whose owners are concerned with health: the Tennessee-based Ruby Tuesday; the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods (whose owner, Roger Berkowitz, has long been ahead of every health curve); and Au Bon Pain, another Boston-based chain.
When I visited Au Bon Pain’s headquarters and test kitchen, the head baker, Harold Midttun, told me that he had sold his family bakery after a heart attack at age thirty-nine. Once he got to Au Bon Pain, he took immediate interest in its mission to find substitutes for trans fats in cookies, muffins, and bagels; with Thomas John, the executive chef, and John Billingsley, the chief operating officer, he organized many tastings to sample new formulations alongside the originals. What were the tastings like? I asked the three men. Fattening, Billingsley replied.
Breads and even muffins were relatively simple; cookies were not. Chocolate-chip cookies, for instance, need the snap and solid texture that butter—or shortening, its much less expensive substitute—gives them when they cool. The company intended to “be zero trans fat” by April of this year, but not all the strudel problems (or the cream-soup ones, for that matter) had been solved.
I realized that saying trans fats are “totally replaceable,” as Frieden repeatedly does—asserting that they are merely used for texture, not taste—is easier for a health official than for a product developer. It should be simple, yes, to get rid of an entirely artificial ingredient that is used mostly for the convenience of industry. Researchers have been working for decades on substitutes, which should by now be as plentiful and as cheap as trans fats.