Schenectady County

County bans trans fats at eateries

County Health Department officials said Friday that the use of artificial trans fats will be banned

County Health Department officials said Friday that the use of artificial trans fats will be banned at restaurants in Albany County from the local pizza shop to fine dining establishments as of Jan. 2, 2009.

Inspectors will be checking restaurant kitchens — including chain restaurants — and violators could be fined as much as $1,000.

County Executive Michael Breslin compared the restriction to laws that prohibit smoking in restaurants, drinking and driving and that require seats belts. At a news conference on Friday he said, “Everyone will be healthier.”

“When people are going out to eat they will know what to look for and can get non-trans fat food,” said Breslin.

A similar ban was enacted in New York City where restaurants had to eliminate the artery-clogging artificial trans fat as of last month.

Some in the restaurant industry said the government is overstepping its boundaries with the ban.

Chuck Hunt, executive vice president at the New York State Restaurant Association, said that in New York City the first phase of the trans fat ban was in 2007 and the second phase went into effect in July 2008.

“We oppose it. It is not something a non-elected agency can do. The courts upheld them and we are stuck with it. We encourage our members to discontinue use of it on a voluntary basis. We felt it was beyond the purview of Board of Health to do this.”

Some in the restaurant business — especially in baked goods — have found a problem using substitutes. Others have replaced artificial trans fats with products having a high level of saturated fats. “We are learning to live with it,” Hunt said with a hint of resignation in his voice.

Initially, the price for substitutes was about the same as for trans fats, but prices have increased drastically as more people are purchasing the non-trans fat products, said Hunt.

“My mother looked over my shoulder to tell me to eat, now the government has become my nanny,” said Hunt.

In Albany County, oils that are free of trans fats must be used in place of artificial trans fats. Restaurants must restrict the use of artificial trans fats in oils, shortenings and margarines that are used in deep frying or spreads by Jan. 2, 2009. Artificial trans fat used in baked good will be restricted as of July 1, 2009.

Artificial trans fats increase the risk of heart disease and stroke by increasing “bad” cholesterol and decreasing “good” cholesterol. Manufactured through a chemical process, it’s found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Many baked goods, mixes and packaged goods and fry oils, margarines and shortening also contain trans fat.

County Health Commissioner Dr. James Crucetti said research shows a link between artificial trans fat consumption and heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in Albany County. “This trans fat restriction in restaurants is one effort among other public health approaches that can help improve the health of our residents,” said Crucetti.

Restaurant owner John DeJohn says he thinks the ban isn’t as much about the restaurant business as it is about societal changes.

“It’s political. It’s telling us how to live our lives. It has more to do with our society than the restaurant business. Let consumers make the decisions.”

DeJohn, who owns Legends, Justin’s and DeJohn’s, all on Lark Street, said that you really can’t taste a difference anyway.

Local chef Gail Sokol, an adjunct chef instructor at Schenectady County Community College, said she’s been criticizing trans fat for years. “I am so glad Albany County is doing this,” she said on Friday.

She made desserts both with artificial trans fat and without and taste testers who sampled them on Friday agreed they didn’t notice a difference. “The public will realize they can eat healthy and trans fat-free,” said Sokol.

Some, however, want to decide what to eat and when. “Why is the government telling me what I can eat?” asked one county employee who asked not to be identified.

He said he will patronize restaurants in Rensselaer County, which doesn’t have such a ban. That way, he can eat as he pleases.

County Majority Leader Frank Commisso sponsored the resolution, which was passed in May by the legislature, that led to the restrictions.

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