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Lead paint, cigarettes: Are trans fats next?

New York City's Health Department wants to ban trans fats from the menus of the city's restaurants.

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Does that jelly doughnut or fried chicken you chomp into contain what many nutritionists say is the worst additive in America's food supply? It might – depending on what recipe was used.

Researchers have linked the consumption of artificial trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to a higher incidence of certain ailments, including heart disease and diabetes. But restaurants are under no obligation to use trans-fat substitutes or tell customers that they're swallowing a potentially dangerous substance.

"It's kind of a stealth product," says Geoffrey Martin, director of the foods department at Consumer Reports magazine in Yonkers, N.Y.

New York City wants to change that. Late last month, its Health Department proposed to step into the kitchens of the city's restaurants, from fast-food joints to elegant nightspots, and mandate that trans fats in all recipes be removed or reduced to minuscule quantities. The idea has received raves from healthy food advocates but left a sour taste in the mouths of many in the restaurant industry, as well as those concerned that a nosy government is about to invade another aspect of citizens' personal lives.

The proposal, which will be voted on by members of the city's Board of Health later this year, would phase in the ban over an 18-month period. It has aroused wide interest outside the city, since New York has a tradition of taking innovative first steps to protect public health. In 1960, New York prohibited the use of lead paint in buildings, some 18 years before the federal government took similar action. And, more recently, it banned smoking in restaurants in 2003.

Already since New York announced its plans, a legislator in New Jersey has proposed a similar ban on trans fats in her state. The District of Columbia has also expressed interest in the New York initiative.

"New Yorkers are consuming a hazardous, artificial substance without their knowledge or consent," the city's health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said in announcing the proposed ban. "Like lead in paint, artificial trans fat in food is invisible and dangerous.... While it may take some effort, restaurants can replace trans fat without changing the taste or cost of food. No one will miss it when it's gone."

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