Senate passes ban on harmful trans fats

May 9, 2009 5:01:05 AM PDT
Daring to tinker with the hallowed formula for chicken fried steak and french fries, the Texas Senate voted Friday to ban the use of most trans fats in restaurants. But, fearing a backlash from the sweet tooth lobby, the lawmakers provided an exemption for trans fats used to make cakes, pies and other bakery items.

"The icing exemption," is what Democratic Sen. Eliot Shapleigh called the loophole, explaining that cake icing doesn't stay put without the hydrogen pumped into the oil -- the very process that makes trans fats unhealthy.

Other exemptions were provided for food served by grocery stores, fire departments and certain caterers, and the ban would be slowly phased in. Initially, it would impact only chain establishments. It would apply to all Texas restaurants by late 2011.

Another loophole -- for nonprofit organizations -- was inserted in part to ensure that corn dogs and other fried goodies served at rodeos and state fairs could still be cooked with trans fat.

Shapleigh, the author of the bill, stressed that the ban only applies to the type of oil used -- not the food itself -- even as critics panned any attempt to mess with Texas fried food.

"Will you ban butter?" asked an indignant Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who voted against the bill. "We're going to coerce Jack-in-the-Box to cease serving fish and chips, bacon cheddar potato wedges, curly fries, chicken biscuits, sausage egg and cheese biscuits."

According to the America's Health Rankings study for 2008 by the United Health Foundation, 28.6 of Texans are considered obese, up from 26.1 percent in 2007. Texas ranked 46th in the overall health chart, according to the study.

The trans fat ban, which passed on a 24-6 vote, would place Texas alongside the state of California and New York City in banning the potentially hazardous fats. Proponents say the move would help fight obesity and reduce health insurance costs.

Trans fats, which gained popularity after World War II as a way to extend the shelf life of food products, are created when hydrogen is added to oil to make it more solid.

The oils can increase artery-clogging LDL cholesterol while decreasing the good type of cholesterol known as HDL. The American Medical Association, the nation's largest physicians' group, has said it supports state and federal attempts to ban the use of artificial trans fats in restaurants and bakeries.

The powerful Texas Restaurant Association signed on to support the prohibition, and that will undoubtedly give it a boost in the Legislature. The bill now moves to the Texas House.

Many restaurants, including fast-food chains such as McDonald's, Wendy's and KFC, are already moving to get rid of trans fats anyway.

Shapleigh said other oils are readily available, allowing restaurants who use trans fat to go with a healthier alternative.

"It doesn't affect French fries. It doesn't affect fried eggs. It affects the oil that's used," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

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