TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Concerned about those heart-damaging trans fats in your food? Absolutely, Shelley Boisvert said. “But evidently not enough,” she added with a rueful laugh, polishing off an order of fries in a downtown pub.
Michigan state Rep. Lee Gonzales wants to help people like Boisvert, who want restaurant fare to be healthy but don’t always act like it when ordering a meal.
He is sponsoring legislation that would require restaurants to tell customers which menu items contain trans fats — and phase them out by July 2008.
Trans fats are a cause celebre in many statehouses around the nation since New York City approved a ban in December. Bills to restrict or banish trans fats in restaurants or school cafeterias, or require warnings in establishments that serve foods containing them, have been introduced in at least 18 states.
Artificial trans fats, short for trans fatty acids, are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils commonly used for deep frying and baking processed cookies, cakes and crackers.
They became popular with the food industry because they lengthen shelf life and improve taste. But critics say they raise levels of bad cholesterol in the blood while reducing the good kind, leading to clogged arteries and heart disease.
They’re also believed to increase risk of type 2 diabetes, which killed Gonzales’ father just short of his 60th birthday. “I get pretty passionate about this,” the Democrat from Flint Township said.
The National Restaurant Association agrees trans fats should go. But the 380,000-member group frowns on government mandates and timetables, saying the private sector is developing solutions on its own as customers become more health-conscious.
Is government best?
National chains such as Wendy’s International Inc., Yum Brands Inc.’s KFC and Taco Bell have pledged to dump trans fats. McDonald’s Corp. recently announced it had developed a trans-fat-free oil for french fries, and Marriott International Inc. said last week it would eliminate trans fats from its restaurants in the United States and Canada.
Tom Foulkes, vice president of state relations for the restaurant association, chalked up the flood of newly introduced bills to politicians’ affinity for popular causes.
“It’s a sound bite, a simple issue that gets large amounts of media attention,” Foulkes said. “Everybody uses margarine, everyone uses butter, everyone can understand this.”
Don't miss these Health stories
More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.
- Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
- Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
- CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
- What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says
- More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Supporters of government intervention say some restaurants won’t move away from trans fats unless forced. Besides, the threat of state regulation may prod the industry to work faster or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set national standards. The FDA last year began requiring trans fat labels on packaged foods but hasn’t taken action on restaurants.
“Protecting the public health is a basic function of government agencies,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “When the federal government moves too slowly, states and cities will sometimes fill the void. That’s what’s happening with trans fats.”
Ten states have pending bills to restrict or prohibit trans fats in restaurants: Connecticut, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and New Jersey.
Trans fat bans for public school cafeterias have been proposed in California, New Hampshire, Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Virginia. A dozen states are considering labeling requirements.
Foulkes said instead of imposing standards, states should follow the example of Los Angeles, which last week announced a partnership with the California Restaurant Association to voluntarily phase out trans fats.
Boisvert, 50, the french fry eater in Traverse City, said a ban would relieve customers of having to comb the menu for trans-fat-free items.
“But my quandary is whether a government bill is the best way to do it,” she said. “I mean, isn’t this something we should be doing for ourselves?”
Enjoying a fried fish lunch in a Detroit restaurant, Harry Murphy said he’s usually too rushed to think about nutrition when eating out. Getting rid of trans fats would be good for Michigan, which has one of the nation’s highest obesity rates, the 62-year-old said.
Still, he’d prefer that legislators leave trans fats to the restaurant owners.
“I don’t think the government should be involved in this at all,” Murphy said.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.