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Trans fats with the fries? The Big Apple says no

NEW YORK -- Health officials approved a ban on artificial trans fats in the Big Apple's thousands of restaurants Tuesday, making New York the nation's first city to outlaw the ingredient linked to heart disease and other illnesses.

NEW YORK -- Health officials approved a ban on artificial trans fats in the Big Apple's thousands of restaurants Tuesday, making New York the nation's first city to outlaw the ingredient linked to heart disease and other illnesses.

In a city where eating out is a major activity -- either for fun or out of hectic necessity -- many New Yorkers were all for the ban, saying health concerns were more important than fears of Big Brother supervising their stomachs.

"I don't care about what might be politically correct and what's not," said Murray Bader, nursing a cup of coffee at Dunkin' Donuts on Tuesday morning. "I want to live longer."

The 72-year-old Manhattan resident called the ban a "wake-up call" for a public often unaware of the risks of artificial fats. "This stuff clogs up your vessels," he said. "When it comes to health, we only have one life."

Toni Lewis, catching a quick dinner at McDonald's before her daughter's piano lesson on the eve of the vote, acknowledged that yes, it might be an intrusion for the city to tell people what they can and can't put into their stomachs. But, she added, it was a welcome one.

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"This is New York," she said. "People eat out a lot. We don't have a choice. We need someone to make it a healthier proposition."

The ban is likely to send ripples nationwide as cities such as Chicago consider restrictions and large fast-food chains move away from the artificial fats, which are found in baked or fried foods such as french fries and doughnuts.

"It is very significant," said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard University School of Public Health. "New York is not just the Big Apple, it's a big domino as well. Lots of other cities will be following."

The National Restaurant Association, while supporting an overall shift away from these fats, criticized the ban and its deadlines for potentially harming public health.

The ban might pressure some restaurants to resort to using unhealthy saturated fats instead, association spokeswoman Sue Hensley said.

"There is also a legal concern about a city municipal health agency banning an ingredient that the Food and Drug Administration has already approved," she said.

New York's measure, unanimously approved by the city Board of Health, requires restaurants to stop using most frying oils containing artificial trans fat within about six months and to keep it out of all foods by July 2008.

"New Yorkers overwhelmingly favor action to get artificial trans fat out of their restaurants," Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said.

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He said the rules were designed with a more relaxed deadline and grace periods to accommodate restaurant owners who complained that an earlier proposal did not give them enough time.

The ban does not apply to grocery stores or the foods restaurants serve in sealed original packaging. It also does not include naturally occurring trans fats found in small amounts in some meat and dairy products.

Most artificial trans fat is in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is used for baking and frying and is found in many processed foods. Those trans fats also are in margarine and some shortenings.

This means New York restaurants will have to use alternatives as they serve foods including fried chicken, pies, hamburger buns and pizza dough.

Doctors and scientists widely agree that artificial trans fats, invented to be a healthier and longer-lasting alternative to natural animal fats such as butter, are dangerous in almost any amount. They are viewed as more unhealthy than saturated fats because they raise bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol.

"They are far and away the biggest toxic chemical in the food supply," Willett said, saying recent research has also linked these fats to diabetes and dementia.

Willett said governments have a responsibility to ban them.

"If somebody was in the kitchens in the restaurants of New York dumping arsenic into hamburger mix, there would be an outrage if the public health department didn't do anything about it," he said. "This is really not any different."

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In Chicago, proposed trans fat restrictions aimed at large fast-food chains would apply only to companies with revenues of more than $20 million each year.

Several companies already have moved to eliminate trans fat from products.

McDonald's Corp. has used trans fat-free cooking oil in Denmark since that country banned the fats. The company is experimenting with healthier oils for use in the United States and says it will be ready for New York's deadlines.

Wendy's International Inc. said in August that it switched to a new cooking oil without trans fats. YUM! Brands Inc.'s KFC plans to cut trans fat by April by switching to a new soybean oil.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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