Health regulators in the US city of Boston, Massachusetts, have voted unanimously in favour of banning trans fats in restaurants and grocery stores, according to various media reports.

A number of US cities have already taken similar steps. New York City’s Board of Health, after a voluntary campaign that did not work, introduced a phasing out of trans fats in restaurant foods that started in July last year and completes in July this year. Philadelphia’s City Council voted unanimously to ban trans fats in eateries and commercial kitchens, but small bakeries can still use them, and the ban does not apply to pre-packaged food.

Others, such as Chicago and San Francisco are expected to follow. San Francisco is currently trying to get restaurants to follow a voluntary programme.

Trans fats are made when manufacturers hydrogenate vegetable oil to prolong the shelf life of foods like crackers and cakes, and to stabilize flavours in french fries and other fried foods.

Studies have shown that like saturated fats, trans fats raise LDL cholesterol (the so called “bad” cholesterol). However, unlike saturated fats some types of trans fats also reduce the level of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) thereby having a double impact on increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

As well as increasing cardiovascular risk, trans fats are also believed by some experts, although others disagree, to increase the risk of other health problems, such as cancer, diabetes and obesity.

According to the Boston Globe, the first phase of the ban will take effect in September this year. This phase covers the use of cooking oils, shortening and margarines containing artificial trans fats. Baked goods have another year before trans fats are banned in those as well.

The paper said that the Boston ban covers all restaurants, canteens and cafeterias, including those in hospitals and schools. It also covers commercial kitchens inside groceries and delis.

Boston, like New York, will still allow the sale of packaged food containing trans fats, as long as it is clearly labelled; although it is unlikely that many shoppers will find too many of these since packaged food producers are gradually phasing out trans fats anyway and most of the major ones have already done so.

Boston Health Commission officer Harold D Cox said the vote to bring in the ban was unanimous, “its the right thing to do”, he told the Boston Herald.

The vote followed a 90 day public consultation exercise that resulted in overwhelming support for the proposed ban.

Anne McHugh, who runs the Boston Health Commission’s chronic disease prevention campaign, said the city had “stepped into a leadership role” with this move.

Violators face a fine of 1,000 dollars per violation, reports the Herald.

The American Heart Association says healthy Americans over the age of 2 should limit their intake of trans fats to less than 1 per cent of their total daily calories. To do this they recommend you:

  • Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grain and high fibre foods, and dairy food that is mostly fat-free and low fat.
  • Keep total intake of fat to within 25 to 35 per cent of daily calories.
  • Source daily fat intake predominantly from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as in fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.
  • In preparing food, use mostly naturally occurring, unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive oil.
  • When buying packaged food, select only those made with unhydrogenated oil rather than partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils or saturated fat.
  • Use soft margarine instead of butter, and use soft margarines in preference to hard margarines.
  • When choosing margarine, look for “0 grams trans fat” in the nutrition facts part of the label.
  • Avoid eating food high in trans fat, except very occasionally. These may include: french fries, doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies and cakes.
  • Keep to a low level of saturated fat in your diet because by eating less saturated fat you don’t eat so much trans fat.
  • Avoid or severely limit consumption of commercially fried and baked food made using shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are not only high in fat but also likely to contain a lot of trans fat.
  • Limit your consumption of fried fast food to very occasionally as these will continue to be made using commercial shortening and deep-frying fats that will contain trans fats and saturated fats.

Click here for Boston Public Health Commission.

Click here for “Know Your Fats”, webpage from the American Heart Association.

Sources: MNT archives, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, American Heart Association.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD