BU Today

Health & Wellness

Fat’s Chance

BU expert weighs in on Hub’s trans-fat ban

A commercial ban on trans fats would change the way many restaurants operate.

Savor ye pastries while ye may — or so might go the cry of bakers and restaurant owners if the Boston Public Health Commission decides next Tuesday to follow New York City’s lead and ban trans fats in Boston eateries.

For about a decade, medical research has linked trans fats, the hydrogenated fats often used in pastries and deep-fried food, to increased risk of heart disease. Labels declaring “no trans fat” have started appearing on food in supermarkets, and companies ranging from Marriott International to Burger King have pledged to eliminate or reduce trans fats in their menus.

In December, New York City announced that it would phase in a ban on trans fats starting in July. After the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission hinted that Boston might initiate a similar ban, critics grumbled about the “food police,” and even Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) wondered aloud about its enforceability.

But Paula Quatromoni, a Sargent College assistant professor of nutrition, says costs associated with a trans-fat ban, such as additional city inspectors, would be worth it for the sake of a healthier population. The same food choices would exist without trans fats, she argues — they would simply be better for you. “You know, people can still choose to have French fries. It’s just a matter of what they’re fried in,” she says.

As the commission’s decision approaches, BU Today spoke with Quatromoni about trans fats and why she thinks they should be banished from Beantown. What do you think?

BU Today:
What are the trans fat basics?

Paula Quatromoni: Trans fats are formed by taking liquid oil and introducing hydrogen into it. The process is called hydrogenation, and it creates a semisolid or solid fat. Think of Crisco shortening — that’s a hydrogenated fat. They’re in snack foods and baked goods, and they’re in fast food restaurants, because that’s what they fry things in.

They give products a longer shelf life and produce a certain mouth feel, a flavor, and a texture that Americans are really hooked on. They’re in a lot of things that make their way into our kids’ lunch boxes — snack foods, desserts, cookies, pastries, doughnuts, and mixes like brownie mix, pancake mix, and hot chocolate mix. And they’re used in deep-fat frying.

The FDA estimates that the average American eats 4.7 pounds of trans fats a year, or about 6 grams a day. And the current dietary recommendations are to have no more than 1 percent of your daily calorie intake coming from trans fats. So, in a 2,000-calorie diet, you shouldn’t be getting more than 2 or 2.5 grams of trans fats, tops.

How unhealthy are they?

They’re not only unhealthy, they’re dangerous. They’re unhealthy because they raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol. So they really are a double whammy in terms of increasing your risk of heart disease. They’re dangerous because they’re hidden in foods, and people can be completely unaware that they’re there and how much they’re consuming, particularly in a restaurant setting, where you don’t have a food label in front of you. It may not be on people’s radar screen when they’re ordering dessert and choosing between the fruit plate and “death by chocolate.”

What about those who say that trans fat is just a scapegoat for America’s inability to slow the growing obesity rate?

Obesity is a huge risk factor for cardiovascular disease, so it’s easy to confuse the messages. But this argument is really not about obesity, because you can replace trans fat with vegetable oil and have the same calorie content. At the end of the day, obesity is about calories in and calories out, consumption compared to exercise. But you can still be overweight and lower your risk of heart disease by eating a healthier diet (less trans fat, more fruits and vegetables). There’s a concept of being metabolically fit, which means your blood lipids are good, your blood glucose is good, your blood pressure is good. And you can achieve that even if you’re overweight.

So you think that a citywide ban is the right idea?

I do. I believe it’s a good way to go. Americans eat out with tremendous frequency, and so the potential for exposure to trans fats through restaurants is probably even more than in the supermarket aisles.

They talk about it as something that’s going to be phased in, and I think that’s really important, because we need to show the food industry and the restaurants that we’re going to work with them and give them the time. There’s a huge economic component to this. Trans fats are literally half the cost of other oils. And when you change ingredients, you’ve got to do a lot of taste-testing and developing of new recipes to come up with something so that consumers still have what they expect in that product and will still be pleased and want to buy it or continue to come back to that restaurant.

But I think it’s a tremendous opportunity. I believe it will translate to risk reduction and a healthier population. I think these fats are unnecessarily ubiquitous in our food supply, and something needs to be done about it. Consumers have to embrace this as well if we’re really going to effect change.

Speaking of consumer support, what about the idea that we shouldn’t be legislating personal choice and lifestyle?

There are going to be people who feel they’re being wronged, but my sense is that we really are in a health-conscious era, and I think the smoking bans paved the way for some of the dietary stuff. And so it’s not like we’re going to take away your snack food and there will no longer be pies and brownies. It’s just that we’re trying to make them healthier.

You can certainly go out and buy Crisco and make food that way, if that’s how you want your glazed carrots prepared at Thanksgiving, the way my grandmother used to do it. But to me, it’s an issue of control over our food supply, and if there are healthier options, then of course I want them. I want them for myself, my family, my children, my friends, and my co-workers. There’s still freedom of choice. There are plenty of sources of fat out there, and there’s plenty of good-tasting food. And a lot of the good-tasting foods are also low in fat. It’s about broadening your horizons and keeping an open mind.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.