City Aims to Eliminate Trans Fats

But opponents say a ban would cause a shift to other saturated fats

The Cambridge City Council moved one step closer to banishing trans fatty acids from the city’s diet at its meeting yesterday.

The city will encourage restaurants to voluntarily eliminate trans fats from their menus before possibly pursuing a city-wide legislative ban.

“There are really few better things that could be done for the public health than to get trans fats out of the food supply,” Walter C. Willett, the Stare professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a prominent researcher on the health effects of trans fats, told the council.

New York City and Chicago have each recently proposed bans on trans fats served in some or, in the case of New York, all city restaurants, although neither ban has been implemented.

“I think we need to get to a ban as soon as we can,” said Councillor Henrietta Davis yesterday.

Opponents of trans-fat bans argue that prohibiting trans fats would force restaurants to switch to more harmful saturated fats.

“Partially hydrogenated oil—our primary source of trans fat—has many characteristics that are hard to replicate without using oils that are high in saturated fats (like butter or lard),” according to the Web site of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group of restaurants, food companies, and lipo-libertarians.

Willett said his research has linked consumption of trans fats to many health problems currently plaguing Americans, including obesity, liver problems, and adult onset diabetes.

“If we could eliminate trans fats from our diets and replace them with natural fats, we could possibly drop rates of type II diabetes by 40 percent,” Willett said.

In a report submitted to the council by City Manager Robert W. Healy in response to an Oct. 16 formal inquiry by the council, Karen Hacker, interim chief public health officer at the city’s Department of Public Health, encouraged the council to institute policies to curb the use of trans fats in Cambridge but discouraged a legislative ban.

“At this time, the Cambridge Public Health Department is not considering regulating trans fat use,” she wrote in the city’s report dated Nov. 15. “The department strongly believes that the opportunity to build a lasting relationship with the restaurant community outweighs the short-term benefit of banning trans-fat use through regulation.”

Cambridge citizen Roy Bercaw criticized the report for only addressing trans fats in restaurants, not in packaged foods.

“This is an elitist report, as it is only concerned with rich people who go out to eat at restaurants,” said Bercaw during the public comment portion of the meeting.

In response to this criticism, Councillor Craig Kelley asked Healy to investigate the possibility of restricting the sale of foods containing trans fats in stores as well.