Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Students ask city to ban trans fat

Community School eighth-graders cite health issues

Express Staff Writer

A cook prepares onion rings at Lefty’s Bar & Grill in Ketchum, which does not use trans fat in its frying. Photo by Willy Cook

The use of trans fats in Ketchum restaurants would be banned if a group of Community School eighth-graders have their way.

Four female students stood before the Ketchum City Council on Thursday, Dec. 16, asking the city to consider their proposal to outlaw trans fats, which is a manmade fat depicted on nutrition labels as "partially hydrogenated oil." Trans fat is manufactured by changing the chemical structure of healthy unsaturated fats. It's used in foods not because of any added flavor—it's tasteless—but because it allows baked goods to have a longer shelf life and enables frying oils to be used for longer.

Becky McCarver, clinical dietician at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, said in an interview that trans fat's "convenience" comes at a price.

"It's the only fat that decreases your healthy cholesterol (HDL) and increases your unhealthy cholesterol (LDL)," McCarver said. "It's truly a double whammy."

She added that the other lowly regarded fat, saturated fat, only increases the unhealthy cholesterol and is naturally occurring in our bodies and other animals.

"Trans fat doesn't occur naturally except for in the guts of a few animals," she said.

The four female students appearing before the City Council are part of six—Alex Harten, Sara Runkel, Tara Burchmore, Anna Dunn, Will Harder and Gavin Shipley—in the class co-taught at the Sun Valley school by Scott Runkel and Naomi Goldberg.

Runkel said in an interview that the students have been working toward this ordinance since the beginning of the school year when the class was split into three groups. Each group researched the food industry and honed in on an improvement that could be made on the local level. One group implemented an Idaho's Bounty co-op grocery program under which parents could pick up their locally produced groceries at the school once a week instead of making a separate trip to an Idaho's Bounty center. Another group launched a pilot lunch program in which restaurants would come and serve a healthy meal using local ingredients.

Student Sara Runkel, teacher Scott Runkel's daughter, said her group wanted to do something to improve not just the Community School but the community. They decided to propose a citywide ordinance, quickly discovering that their idea isn't far-fetched.

New York City amended its health code in 2006 to ban trans fats in restaurants. In the amendment, the city cited a conclusion of the Institute of Medicine—the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences—that said there is "a positive linear trend between trans fatty acid intake and LDL concentrations, and therefore increased risk of coronary heart disease."

"We thought if New York could do it, so could we," said student Alex Harten, adding that the community is already "very health conscious."

The students followed New York's rules in tailoring its proposed ordinance, requiring restaurants to keep nutrition labels on hand so customers can see if they're eating trans fat.

New York reported receiving 2,200 comments in support of the ban and 70 against. Sara Runkel said the group has talked to about 15 Ketchum restaurateurs and none was flat-out opposed to the ordinance. She said these restaurants either already avoid trans fats and signed in support of the ordinance—those include Perry's, Despo's, China Panda and Bluebird Day Café—or are unaware if they use it and are uncertain about the ordinance's financial effect if they have to change their practices. She said Sun Valley Resort doesn't use trans fat, except for margarine that it provides if requested.

In 2008, California became the first state to ban trans fats, requiring all restaurants to eliminate them by 2011. The country of Denmark banned trans fat five years before California's decision. Since then, Harvard's School of Public Health has established a link between trans fats and infertility.

"The more trans fats a woman ate, the more likely she was to be infertile," Dr. Jorge Chavarro, an instructor at the school, stated on the school's website.

St. Luke's dietician McCarver said it's difficult to understand all the effects of an unnatural substance like trans fat.

"What is it doing inside your body to do all this?" she asked, adding that this shouldn't be a "loaded topic" because something isn't being taken away that will be noticed when food's eaten. "This would be something [for Ketchum] to be so proud of."

She said the hospital eliminated all trans fats about a year and a half ago.

Idaho state law grants cities the authority to pass ordinances to protect public health, but the Ketchum City Council hasn't yet given its support to the students' proposal.

"It certainly seems like a worthy thing to pursue," said Councilman Baird Gourlay at Thursday's meeting, adding that it would make food healthier and at no cost to the city.

However, Mayor Randy Hall said the city doesn't want to rush into the ordinance without knowing the entire restaurant community's response and if trans fat is even widely used to begin with.

"We want them to be in the loop," he said, because their cooperation would be almost entirely voluntary since enforcement would be tricky.

He gave the students an assignment: Contact the local restaurant association and conduct a poll concerning the ordinance.

Trevon Milliard:

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