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Ban trans fats?

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Banned in New York City. Banned in Philadelphia. Banned in Brookline, Mass. Banned in Montgomery County, Md. But what about Arkansas? Could it be a battleground in the struggle against trans fats?

In a state that cherishes its hushpuppies and fried catfish, it may seem a laughable suggestion — but that doesn’t mean state officials aren’t taking it seriously. Joe Thompson, the state’s chief medical officer, points out that awareness of the detriments of trans fats has been spreading, and that’s the first step toward their elimination. He thinks trans fats are doomed in the long run, and he says they will go in one of two ways: “Either consumers decide they don’t want to deal with [trans fats], or the health issues become overwhelming” and the government imposes a ban.

Eaters have a choice in what they consume, but there’s also a problem of supply. The more producers use trans fats in their foods, the more difficult it will be for consumers to watch their intake. Since the beginning of last year, the Food and Drug Administration has tried to make the healthy eater’s task easier by requiring that trans fats be marked on nutritional labels. The move has had some effect, particularly on product promotion. (You may have noticed that your bag of Doritos shouts that it has “NO TRANS FATS.”)

But even if a nutrition label says that a food is trans-fat free, that might not be true — companies are allowed to slap a goose egg in the trans-fat column if their product contains less than half a gram per serving. To be totally sure you’re not ingesting the stuff, you need to look at the list of ingredients; if “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” is there, you’re being tainted.

But tainted with what, exactly? Trans fats are essentially naturally occurring vegetable oils that are synthetically modified with hydrogen; they’re useful to processed food makers because they ensure products keep longer. They’re also a key component in margarine, shortening and oils, and they’re often found in pies, cakes and deep-fried foods. Though difference of opinion exists, the prevailing theory seems to be that trans fats make for better pie crusts and doughnuts, among other items.

Eat enough of them, though, and you increase your risk of heart problems. According to a 2006 study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, “10 percent to 19 percent of chronic heart disease events in the United States could be averted by reducing the intake of trans fat.” (Contrary to popular perception, there’s no identified link between trans-fat intake and obesity — although, to be sure, peach cobbler doesn’t make you any thinner.)

There are rarely labels, of course, to tell you about the food you order when you eat out, which explains why the bans in effect across the country target restaurants. Some restaurant owners in Arkansas are taking steps to beat lawmakers to the punch. Jose’s, a Mexican restaurant with outlets in Fayetteville and Springdale, has already phased them out of their foods by switching oils. (They use canola oil; soy oil is also a healthy pick, and peanut oil runs third.)

Nick Davidson, kitchen manager of the Springdale location, says there were a couple of reasons behind the decision. “We didn’t have customers asking for it,” he says. “It was going to get regulated eventually, but this is also the healthiest thing for our customers.” The switch didn’t come without a cost — he says Jose’s now takes an additional weekly hit of at least $120 on frying oil.

Restaurateurs don’t need to sweat the long arm of the law just yet, at least not on the state level. Sen. Tracy Steele has plans to conduct a study of the issue, but the earliest possible date for legislation would be 2009, when state lawmakers reconvene in Little Rock.

Thompson, however, is betting that won’t be necessary. He thinks that, once they know what they’re dealing with, consumers will phase trans fats out of their diets before the law has to cut the supply chain. For now, though, raising awareness remains the goal. “I think we’re clearly in the educational phase,” he says.

— John Williams

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