By Jeremy Appleton, ND, CNS

Healthnotes Newswire (December 21, 2006)—Trans fats are on their way out of many American restaurants—if typically trend-setting New York City is any indication. The city’s Board of Health recently voted to phase out artificial trans fat from New York City’s restaurants. The decision, which will require that all city restaurants completely remove trans fat–containing foods from their menus over the next 18 months, has aroused anger from many sectors including restaurateurs and food industry professionals.

New York City is the first city in the nation to require removal of trans fats from restaurants. If the ban is successful, many other regions could follow suit. Massachusetts State Rep. Peter Koutoujian has already proposed a similar ban for his entire state.

“New Yorkers overwhelmingly favor action to get artificial trans fat out of their restaurants,” said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden. “We also heard from restaurant operators who voiced real difficulties making the transition, and we’ve changed implementation plans to help restaurants implement the new regulations.”

The word “trans” refers to the 3-dimensional configuration of the fatty acid molecule, the opposite configuration of the naturally occurring “cis” fatty acid. In the Western diet, trans fats are found in mainly in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. When heated, such oils last longer than other oils, so they increase the shelf life of baked goods and last longer in fast food deep fryers. Trans fats are found in many fried foods (such as French fries), baked foods (like donuts), snack foods (like crackers), margarines, vegetable shortening, and salad dressings. About 2 to 3% of the total calories consumed by the average American come from industrially produced trans fatty acids.

What’s so bad about trans fats? Plenty.

Compared with saturated fats like butter or cis unsaturated fats like safflower, canola, or olive oil, eating trans fats raises levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, reduces levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, increases total cholesterol and causes a deficiency of essential fatty acids. All of these effects, among others, significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Trans fats also appear to cause inflammation, particularly among overweight adults. Inflammation raises the risk of atherosclerosis, sudden death from cardiac causes, diabetes, and heart failure, so the inflammatory effects of trans fats could be partly responsible for their adverse effects on cardiovascular health.

Trans fats appear to disrupt normal activity of the blood vessel lining, causing disturbances to blood flow that contribute to heart disease, chest pain (angina), leg pain (intermittent claudication) and male erectile dysfunction (impotence).

“Far from being inert carriers of calories, fatty acids are powerful modulators of cell function,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, MPH, Instructor in Medicine and Epidemiology, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of a new review on trans fats published in the New England Journal of Medicine. “The consumption of trans fatty acids from partially hydrogenated oils provides no apparent nutritional benefit and has considerable potential for harm.”

Since January of 2006, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required that nutrition labels declare the amount of trans fats in packaged foods and supplements.

In a move that is likely to herald changes to come, multinational fast food companies Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Wendy’s have announced plans to phase out trans fats in their restaurants. They join a growing list of food companies, retailers and government bodies making similar changes. After its failed previous efforts to market healthier French fries, McDonald’s is making no announcements to change to healthier fats.

(N Engl J Med 2006;354:1601–13; BMJ 2006;333;772)

Jeremy Appleton, ND, CNS, is a licensed naturopathic physician, certified nutrition specialist, and published author. Dr. Appleton was the Nutrition Department Chair at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, has served on the faculty at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, and is a former Healthnotes Senior Science Editor and a founding contributor to Healthnotes Newswire. He has worked extensively in scientific and regulatory affairs in the supplement industry and is now a consultant through his company Praxis Natural Products Consulting and Wellness Services.