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September 2012

Do Food Bans Really Help Improve Public Health?

As debate continues over New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban supersized sodas, a new study suggests that food bans may, in fact, have a positive effect on public health. 

In 2008, New York City enacted a law prohibiting all restaurants from serving foods containing more than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving. As a result, food establishments—including fast-food restaurants—reformulated their offerings to meet this requirement.

Why Ban Trans Fats?

Research suggests that as little as 4.5 grams of trans fats per day can increase one’s risk of coronary heart disease by a staggering 23 percent. Although trans fats naturally occur in meat and dairy products, the largest sources for Americans include stick margarine, processed and baked foods, and foods cooked in partially hydrogenated oils.

Source: Mozaffarian, D. et al. (2006). Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. New England Journal of Medicine354, 16011613.

In 2007, prior to the ban, researchers from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene examined the receipts of nearly 7,000 lunchtime diners at fast-food restaurants throughout Manhattan. This process was repeated in 2009, after the ban was enacted, and researchers collected nearly 8,000 receipts from the same area. After comparing the receipts, they found that diners across a wide range of economic strata consumed 2.4 fewer grams of trans fat per meal after the ban had taken effect. Furthermore, the proportion of meals containing zero grams of trans fat increased from 32 percent before the ban to 59 percent after.

The authors of the study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, point out that one-third of the calories Americans consume come from foods prepared outside the home. “This suggests a remarkable achievement in potential cardiovascular risk reduction through food policy,” they write.

Many public health experts agree. Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston, told the Los Angeles Times that “public health initiatives, if done right, seem to work.” The key is to shift the environment in such a way that the diner automatically receives the healthier option. In other words, you don’t give the consumer a choice—a sentiment that will undoubtedly raise the ire of those who don’t believe the government should limit individual choice. 

In 2003, the federal government began requiring manufacturers to list trans fat content on all processed foods. And, since 2008, many cities and states have followed New York City’s lead and also initiated bans on trans fats. It appears that, overall, the results have been positive: Average intake of trans fats has decreased from 4.6 grams per day in the 1990s to 1.3 grams per day in 2010.


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