NYC’s Trans Fat Ban Worked: Fast-Food Diners Are Eating Healthier

In 2006, New York City passed a first-in-the-nation ban on trans fats in restaurant food. Here's how it worked

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Elevated View of a Tray With Fries, a Hamburger and Lemonade

A study of restaurant diners in New York shows that the city’s ban on trans fats improved its residents’ diet: fast-food customers chose healthier options and cut their trans-fat consumption after the ban.

It’s promising evidence that such changes on a local level can make a meaningful difference in people’s consumption — without even requiring them to change behavior significantly on their own. The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also shows that people reduced artery-clogging trans-fat intake after the ban, without replacing it with another type of fat.

The study by researchers in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene compared the lunchtime meals of people eating at fast-food chains around the city in 2007 and 2009 — before and after the trans-fat ban went into effect. In 2009, the average diner’s fast-food meal contained about 2.4 g less trans fats, down to about half a gram of trans fat per meal. More people also bought menu items with 0% trans fat after the restriction went into place, representing an 86% increase in these healthier options over a two-year period.

Trans fats are known to be particularly dangerous for heart health. Some trans fats occur naturally in dairy products and meat, but the majority of these fats in the average American diet come from the partially hydrogenated oils used widely in the preparation of prepackaged foods and restaurant fare, such as commercially baked goods and fried foods like French fries.

In 2006, the federal government began requiring packaged food makers to list the amount of trans fat contained per serving, which was helpful for grocery-store shoppers comparing the relative heart-healthiness of processed foods. But the federal rule had no bearing on restaurant meals, which accounts for about a third of the total calories Americans consume each day.

New York City was the first in the nation to pass a ban against the use of artificial trans fats in restaurants, requiring food preparers to reformulate recipes or eliminate certain ingredients, so that their fare contained no more than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.

That’s why the current study’s results are so encouraging, says co-author Christine Curtis, director of nutrition strategy programs in the New York City Department of Health, especially in light of another proposed citywide ban against large-sized sugary sodas. “We hope this makes it clear that there is an opportunity for local jurisdictions to protect the health of their consumers,” she says.

(MORE: The New York City Soda Ban, and a Brief History of Bloomberg’s Nudges)

The study looked at the dining habits of people eating at 168 restaurants around the city, representing 11 fast-food chains, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Au Bon Pain, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, among others. Researchers compared 6,969 lunchtime receipts collected in 2007 with 7,885 purchases at the same restaurants in 2009, a year after the trans-fat ban was fully in effect.

The researchers studied fast-food diners in both high-income and low-income neighborhoods, but found no difference in the pattern of purchases made in either location. That suggests that it may be health concerns, more so than financial ones, that influence certain eating decisions even in lower-income areas, an encouraging sign for the implementation of public policy approaches to improving health.

The scientists also found that nutritionists’ worries that the trans-fat ban would just lead restaurants to swap trans fats for other unhealthy fats were unfounded; although consumption of saturated fat increased slightly, people ended up eating less combined trans and saturated fat after the policy went into effect. That means that people were eating less fat overall, and therefore consuming potentially healthier options.

Further, the findings proved that the reduction in trans fat consumption wasn’t simply resulting from smaller portion sizes. The ban allowed restaurants to come up with different ways to meet the 0.5 g-per-serving limit, including reducing portion sizes. But some restaurants reformulated their menu items to contain less trans fat, while others discontinued trans-fat-laden items altogether and replaced them with healthier products.

The biggest drop in average trans fat consumption occurred in burger chains, thanks to a combination of reformulated menus and changes in cooking practices, such as trading partially hydrogenated oils for trans-fat-free oils when frying. After hamburger chains, Mexican-food and fried-chicken chains saw the biggest drops in customers’ trans-fat consumption.

The study did not track diners long enough to see if their lower-fat choices translated to actual health gains, such as a drop in heart disease or obesity, but other studies show that such benefits are possible. Previous trials have linked even a 40-calorie-per-day increase in trans fat intake to a 23% higher risk of heart disease. And based on the data collected in the current study, Curtis says the average diner was eating about 20 calories less per day in trans fats. “That gives you an idea of the potentially big impact this policy can have on heart disease,” she says.

The American Heart Association recommends that people limit trans fat to less than 2 g a day, while the latest government dietary guidelines advise people to eat as little trans fat as possible.

New York City’s local ban has led to some wider benefits, since national chains like McDonald’s ended up reducing trans fats systemwide. So far, 15 other jurisdictions have taken New York’s lead and restricted trans fats as well, but Curtis hopes her study’s results will inform yet more legislatures about how powerful such policies can be.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

13 comments
odd.mike
odd.mike

So, let me get this straight: NYC bans transfats, therefor people are eating less transfats. There has been nothing to show an improvement in health but this was a success because the law had the intended effect of reducing transfats.

new law: ban on guns
study result: Success! there are less guns! People are still dying from gun violence, and nothing shows that the number has decreased, but it has totally worked. What was the point of the ban again?

nickc1969
nickc1969

Has eating less trans-fats led to any measurable improvement in health? Has the obesity rate in NYC dropped? Fewer heart attacks? Or are we just supposed to claim that people are "eating healthier" and declare victory? Another "Mission Accomplished" moment.

wholesale food
wholesale food

The scientists analyzed fast-food people in both high-income and low-income communities, but discovered no distinction in the design of buys made in either place. 

xyberviri
xyberviri

Why can't they just outlaw lard, thats pure fat, theres no reason you should add crisco to anything

wholesale food
wholesale food

This is a good step by the government for the health of public. All other countries should take it as an example and should impose similar ban in their countries for the welfare of people.

WallyGeez
WallyGeez

CONGRATULATIONS are in order to NY for taking a lead and ACTION to help

curb the obesity epidemic. In case anyone hasn't noticed - NOTHING seems

to be working. This is a practical approach that at least helps and is

in the right direction!!

mark
mark

Why stop there? Nanny state liberals should start rounding people up and shipping them off to fat-camp prisons to loose weight. After all, the ENDS justifies the MEANS, right Alinskyites?

WallyGeez
WallyGeez

 Hey, as long as FAT folk are asking ME to pay for THEIR mistakes (ie: health costs related to obesity = 70% of our health spend) I should have the right to say something about it!  When the fatties start signing waivers telling me not to worry, that they'll cover their own expenses - I'll shut up.

190771
190771

Lets see if it works in alabama and in mississippi, Will those fat states have a drastic change, I propose a experiment similar to the one in new york city!!!

190771
190771

now lets see what happens when we put a fat ban on alabama and mississippi, Let's see if the 0% trans fat ban will work in those regions!

the4134
the4134

it is 2012.  this was worked on since 2009 (when the meals were eaten).  So 3 years ago, we saw 2.5 gram drop in each meal in NYC where the ban was held.  The true value of this would be to see that in the same period there are cities without the ban where the drop was even more.  The free market made people aware of the dangers and each individual citizen made better choices - not just the "secret Knowledge" that our overlord here in NYC held.

wholefed
wholefed

Of course it makes a difference.  The food industry has to be accountable as well as the consumer. 

Our Refrigerator was recently convicted of attempted murder. It was only after “he” tried to kill me that I realized the danger we were in. In fact, it was while in the ICU following my quadruple bypass surgery , that I figured it out.

A great first step to start a nutrition makeover is by mentally taking an inventory of the food in your fridge. Open it up and take a panoramic view of its contents. Does it look like a friend or an enemy? Considering that 67% of us will die of a chronic disease associated with malnutrition, the danger is real.

What you stock your refrigerator with is a choice. A choice made long before the food made it home. It is a choice based on thousands of small decisions that confront you daily. Each decision needs to be approached with an overriding master plan. When you select items at the store ask yourself a question: does this belong in my refrigerator. Extend that same question to ordering at restaurants; is this something I would eat at home?

Full Post here: http://wholefed.org/2012/07/16...

Ian Welch

WholeFed