CHICAGO — Darryl Townson's doughnuts may get rave reviews, but politicians and health advocates would like to change his recipe.
In a bid to improve the health of Illinois residents, some lawmakers in Springfield are pushing a bill that would ban artificial trans fat from restaurants, bakeries, movie theater popcorn and snacks sold in school vending machines. That would force Townson, a Chicago doughnut shop owner, and other food purveyors to switch to healthier oils.
Scientific evidence against trans fat has been piling up for decades. One nutrition expert says the research puts artery-clogging trans fat in the same category as tobacco. Others have tied the ingredient to 30,000 U.S. heart disease deaths a year.
Illinois would be the second state after California to pass a trans fat ban, but opponents say the food industry already is eliminating trans fat on its own and that the government has no business getting involved. Proponents counter that until the very last establishment does away with the ingredient, the health risk demands legislation.
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Townson, whose Dat Donut shops on Chicago's South Side were named by Bon Appetit magazine as among the nation's best doughnut places last year, opposes a ban. He's worried it would increase his costs by up to 12 percent, and customers don't seem to mind that he uses the ingredient, he said.
"The biggest question most people ask is if they're made with pork lard," Townson said. "People don't ask about trans fat."
Sheila O'Grady, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said the government should butt out. Most in the industry voluntarily switched to more expensive alternatives a few years ago in response to consumer demand for healthier choices, she said.
"In fact, in polling our members, we could not find a single operator still using trans fat oils today," O'Grady said.
What is trans fat? Think stick margarine. Synthetic trans fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils, making them solid at room temperature and less likely to spoil. Patented in 1903, artificial trans fat has been around for decades.
Government concern about Americans' trans fat consumption is newer.
In 2006, under pressure from scientists and consumers, the federal government began requiring packaged foods to list trans fat on nutrition labels. The current U.S. Dietary Guidelines call for keeping levels as low as possible. The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing a petition by a consumer group to prohibit partially hydrogenated oils in food.
"There's still a lot of trans fat in the food supply," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the consumer group petitioning the FDA. "There's no reason to accept it. Companies big and little are still using it ... so unless the whole industry switched, why accept this risk?"
Jacobson, who grew up in Chicago, supports state, county and city bans because Illinois residents "deserve protection from unnecessary hazards, trans fat being one of them."
Artificial trans fats have no health benefits and the evidence linking them with heart disease is compelling, said Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat who is a sponsor of the bill. His west side district includes so-called "food deserts," neighborhoods where it's difficult to buy fresh fruits and vegetables or find restaurants with low-fat menu items. Blacks are more likely than whites to die of heart disease, he noted, making the issue "a major concern in the district."
"It's pretty much like pouring grease down your kitchen drain and it clogs," Ford said. "Trans fats literally are poisonous to the system."
It's time to allow state government more control over trans fat, agreed Linda Van Horn, a research nutritionist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine who chaired the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
"I believe in science. When the data document an association between certain ingredients and risk for disease, it's a clear call to action," Van Horn said. "I put trans fat in the same boat as tobacco."
New York City and King County in Washington state are among the jurisdictions with trans fat bans. Those laws, California's ban, lawsuits and the required labeling on packaged foods have led to an overall decline in trans fat in U.S. foods. Even fast food chains, including McDonald's, have reduced or eliminated them.
Chicago Public Schools cut trans fat in 2007. Vendors made the change within existing contracts so "there was no additional cost to the district," said school district spokesman Frank Shuftan.
The bill, which passed in the Illinois House and awaits consideration in the Senate, exempts school cafeterias, even though Illinois ranks fourth highest among the states for its childhood obesity rate.
The Illinois State Board of Education has taken no stand on the bill because the federal government is proposing rules that would require schools participating in the national school meals program to use only products containing zero trans fat per serving, said spokeswoman Mary Fergus.
In the 1990s, Harvard School of Public Health researchers pinned the number of premature U.S. deaths caused by trans fat at 30,000 a year. If that number was correct then, there are probably already fewer deaths because of the food industry's voluntary reductions, experts said.
But getting deaths down to zero is still a worthy goal, said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
Brownell argues that nutrition education, market forces and consumer pressure go only so far. "You're making the restaurant environment healthier with one stroke of a pen by signing that law."
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