On Dec. 5 the New York City Board of Health voted unanimously to ban trans fatty acids in all restaurants — an initiative that Cornell Dining began months beforehand. Even more detrimental than saturated fat, trans fats clog arteries, increase cholesterol and are a leading contributor to coronary heart disease, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“We’re way ahead of the curve. We’ve been working on using trans fat-free oils in all our dining locations for six to eight months now,” said Steven Miller, Cornell Dining chief executive chef. “We’re using more olive oil than vegetable oil, and we’re working on getting french fries that contain no trans fats.” Miller said.
A large order of fries at McDonald contains a whopping six grams of the artery-clogging trans fats, yet the fries at Appel Commons contain very little, if any. Partially hydrogenated oils used in frying are one of the most common sources for trans fatty acids, along with processed foods like cookies, baked items and stick margarine.
Prof. Dennis Miller, food science, explained that the recent concern over trans fats results from their ability to affect both good cholesterol, HDL and bad cholesterol, LDL.
“Essentially they’re moving both types of blood cholesterol in the wrong direction. Other types of fat only move the levels in one direction, like saturated fat that increases both types of cholesterol,” Miller said.
The trans fatty acid’s combined effect of raising LDL levels and lowering HDL levels creates far greater health risks than any other type of fat in the body.
In a 1993 Harvard medical study that tracked the dietary habits of 85,000 nurses, Prof. Walter Willet, nutrition and epidemiology, linked the consumption of trans fats to coronary heart disease. “It was a big study with a lot of subjects involved, and that really got people concerned,” said Miller.
By 2005, the USDA and the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services published a set of guidelines explicitly warning citizens to “keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible.”
Miller pointed out, however, that “it takes a while for general recommendations to reach the public after research is published.”
Only in the past year have super market isles become populated with food packaging bragging “zero trans fats.”
New York is the first city in the U.S. to completely ban trans fats — by July 2008 restaurants must have eliminated the use of all partially hydrogenated oils, which contain high amounts of trans fatty acids. The federal government has not passed a ban on trans fats, but the FDA now requires all food companies to list the amount of trans fats on their labels.
Along with the Cornell Dining facilities, Cornell Dairy also boasts almost no trans fats in its ice cream, milk and other products. “In general, dairy products don’t have any trans fats, but by law we had to add the trans fat line in on the label as of January 2006,” said Vinnie Nykeil, general manager of Cornell Dairy.
In conjunction with Food Science 101, the Cornell Dairy puts out two new flavors of ice cream each year, along with its 20 regular flavors. Aside from the low trans fat content, the ice cream is high in other fats and sugar: “We’ve tried low fat or low sugar ice cream and it just doesn’t sell, because younger people want the good stuff,” Nykeil said.
Although the bad reputation of trans fatty acids is only just beginning to spread, Americans are on their guard. “A lot of consumers, while they don’t know what trans fat is, know that it’s not good,” said Prof. Miller.
In the Cornell community, at least, trans fatty acids are hard to come by.