NEW YORK – New York City, long known for clogged arteries during rush hour, took a big and controversial step Tuesday toward helping improve human arteries when the Board of Health officially banned artificial trans fats from restaurant menus.
The board, which passed the ban unanimously, gave restaurants a slight break by relaxing what had been considered a tight deadline for compliance. Restaurants will be barred from using most frying oils containing artificial trans fats by July, and will have to eliminate artificial trans fats from all served foods by July 2008.
"I am very supportive of the changes," said Hasan, a manager at Dervish, a Turkish restaurant. "We stopped using trans fats a long time ago. Health is the most important factor, and people will just have to get used to it."
Pushcart vendor Abu doesn't buy the ban.
"You need a little trans for good taste. I think this is a very bad idea," he said.
City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden had said that officials weighed complaints from the restaurant industry, which argued that it was unrealistic to give them six months to replace cooking oils and shortening and 18 months to phase out the ingredients altogether.
The ban contains some exceptions; for instance, it would allow restaurants to serve foods that come in the manufacturer's original packaging.
Trans fats are believed to be harmful because they contribute to heart disease by raising bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol. Some experts say that makes trans fats worse than saturated fat.
The board also passed a measure requiring mostly fast-food restaurants and chains to list calorie and nutritional information on the menu.
Trans fats are formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats by adding hydrogen in a process called hydrogenation. A common example of this is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is used for frying and baking and turns up in processed foods like cookies, pizza dough and crackers. Trans fats, which are favored because of their long shelf life, are also found in pre-made blends like pancake and hot chocolate mix.
The FDA estimates the average American eats 4.7 pounds of trans fats each year.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who banned smoking in bars and restaurants during his first term, is somewhat health-obsessed, and even maintains a monthly weight-loss competition with one of his friends in order to stay slim.
He has dismissed cries that New York is crossing a line by trying to legislate diets.
"Nobody wants to take away your french fries and hamburgers — I love those things, too," he said recently. "But if you can make them with something that is less damaging to your health, we should do that."
Hansil Basin, manager of Sbarro pizza, agrees with the new laws.
"Often people don't make wise food choices even when given the option. So we have to make choices for them. It's a positive move," he said.
Many food makers voluntarily stopped using trans fats after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring companies to list trans fat content on labels.
Fast-food restaurants and other major chains were particularly interested in the board's decision because a trans-fat ban wouldn't just involve substituting one ingredient for another. In addition to overhauling recipes, the change disrupts supply operations, not to mention selling the new taste to customers.
"Of course this will affect the way our products taste," said Shahim Ahmed, a manager at Dunkin' Donuts. "But I think it is for the best. Our products will end up tasting just as good and be better for you, so it is win-win."
Already, McDonald's Corp. (MCD) has been quietly experimenting with more than a dozen healthier oil blends, but has not committed to a full switch. At an investor conference last month, CEO Jim Skinner said the company is making "very good progress," at developing an alternative, and vowed to be ready for a New York City ban.
Wendy's International Inc. introduced a zero-trans fat oil in August and Yum Brands Inc.'s (YUM) KFC and Taco Bell said they also will cut the trans fats from their kitchens.
Taco Bell worked for more than two years to find a substitute, conducting blind consumer taste tests and extensive research, the company said.
Chicago also is considering its own trans fat law, which wouldn't ban them outright but would severely restrict the amount that kitchens can use. The measure would apply only to large restaurants, defined as those that make more than $20 million in sales per year.
New York's move to ban trans fats has mostly been applauded by health and medical groups, although the American Heart Association warns that if restaurants aren't given ample time to make the switch, they could end up reverting to ingredients high in saturated fat, like palm oil.
Here's what others had to say on the streets of New York:
Emilie Carlson, 29 (New York):
"It's fabulous. People are ignorant in terms of health and regardless of education will always choose taste over health."
Renee Abney, 33 (France):
"A lot of Americans are very fat, something must be done. But a ban is no solution. Food needs to be regarded as a sit-down luxury, none of this fast-food business."
Kelley Rolfe, 16 (Colorado):
"Heaps of my friends eat Maccas almost everyday, that's kinda bad. I like to have it every now and then for a treat, so I would be kinda upset if they banned trans in Colorado as well."
Akos Mizal, 24 (New Jersey):
"You don't need trans fats anyway. They should be banned in all states. If we are going to start shaping up this country, let's start with health."
Miranda Libertini, 30 (New York):
"Isn't New York supposed to be about free choice? A ban isn't going to fix anything. People will end up crossing the bridge to Jersey for a burger and fries."
Toby Licthmann, 55 (Maryland):
"I think it is stupid. I visit New York a lot and we love dining out here. The experience won't be as good now."
Jeff LeFrancois, 21 (Connecticut):
"I think it is a step in right direction. We as society do not make healthy choices when given the option, thus it needs to be enforced. Health is vital to a successful society."
Michelle Williams, 27 (England):
"Any decent diet book you read says moderation is the key. In my experience, total deprivation leads to cravings and then complete gorging ..."
Scott Banks-Willis, 18 (New York):
"I actually work in hospitality and find it disgusting the way the stuff is cooked. The same people come in everyday and eat so much of it, I look forward to the trans ban but my boss won't."
FOXNews.com's Hollie McCay and the Associated Press contributed to this report.