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Chelsea, Lynn

Bans on trans fats coming in new year

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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There is still more than a month left before the new year, but Chelsea and Lynn have already made resolutions to promote healthier eating.

Come Jan. 1, Lynn will be the first community north of Boston to ban the use of trans fats anywhere food is prepared, including restaurants, bakeries, hospitals, and nursing homes.Health officials in Chelsea hope to pass a similar ban before the end of the year, to be enacted by early 2012.

Trans fats have already been banned in restaurants and bakeries in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Needham. Recently adopted nutrition standards by the state Public Health Council will eliminate trans fats from schools statewide starting in the 2012-13 school year.

Known as the “hidden killer,’’ trans fats, commonly found in snacks, fried foods, and baked goods, have been directly tied to increases in coronary heart disease because they increase levels of bad cholesterol while lowering levels of good cholesterol. It is recommended by numerous health associations that they be consumed only in trace quantities.

Artificial trans fatty acids have also been linked to obesity, which was the main reason Chelsea health officials decided to pursue a ban, said Melissa Dimond, coordinator of Healthy Chelsea, a citywide coalition sponsored by Massachusetts General Hospital.

In 2009, a needs assessment performed by the MGH Center for Community Health Improvement in Chelsea found that the number one health concern in the city was obesity.

“It had never been in the top before. It was striking that it was number one,’’ said Dimond, a manager for Community Health Improvement at MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center. “A lot of it has to do with poverty. When people are really strapped for money, that can really dictate some of the food choices they make.’’

Much of Chelsea’s low-income population is largely Latino, but Dimond dismisses the notion that traditional ethnic diets are to blame.

“Folks who are not from the US are learning how to assimilate to the US culture, combined with not having the money to make the best food choices as possible. Chelsea is one of those communities,’’ she said, adding that Chelsea has the lowest rate of car ownership outside of Boston, which prevents many residents from having access to large supermarkets.

“The vast majority of food stores in Chelsea are small bodegas. If somebody is going to be shopping in one of those stores, they have less choice than if they were shopping at a full-service store.’’

To help curb the obesity problem, the city’s Board of Health approached Healthy Chelsea to assist with a plan to ban trans fats in commercially prepared foods. The board has held several public hearings and is now drafting a plan, which it hopes to vote on soon. Surveys taken by health officials in Chelsea and Lynn in preparation for the bans revealed that some restaurants and bakeries are already using trans-fat-free oils and shortening - including even many national chain eateries, which were forced to make changes as bans were passed in large cities such as New York, and places like California and Puerto Rico.

Tito Avellaneda, owner of Tito’s Bakery in Chelsea, is among those who have voluntarily removed trans fats from their food preparation. Because he wholesales to ethnic supermarkets in Boston, he was forced to eliminate trans fats to comply with the city’s ban. Although he agrees eliminating trans fats is a good idea for health reasons, he said the substitutions have altered the taste of many of his baked goods.

“It doesn’t have the same taste,’’ Avellaneda said. “Cakes don’t taste the same, doughs don’t come out the way they’re supposed to. It’s not good, for my taste. A fried doughnut tastes like nothing.’’

He said customers have not complained, likely because the sweetness of many baked desserts can mask the change in texture or taste from the absence of trans fats. Altering the taste of their food is the main concern of many restaurant owners facing the prospect of eliminating the use of partially hydrogenated oils, Dimond said. Coalition members will be working to connect restaurant owners with distributors of adequate alternatives to trans fats. The Board of Health is also considering giving bakeries more time to eliminate trans fats as they work to tweak recipes.

“The main thing that is very important to us is that we do this in a way that is supportive to the restaurants,’’ she said. “We really don’t want it to be a punitive measure but rather something that helps restaurants.’’

Lynn’s ban was unanimously adopted this summer by the Board of Health, which was approached by the Lynn Food and Fitness Alliance - a group of community leaders and organizers - to enact the change citywide, said MaryAnn O’Connor, public health director. Like Chelsea, Lynn is highly diverse and largely populated by low- and middle-income residents.

“Right now there are a lot of areas where we’re ahead of most in terms of chronic disease issues and, certainly, obesity,’’ O’Connor said. “We’re giving [food establishment owners] a couple of months to get ready if there are recipes that need to be addressed.’’

Approximately 270 places where food is commercially prepared, including schools, will be affected by the ban, O’Connor said. Enforcement will be conducted by the city’s health and food inspectors, with fines for violations, ranging from a warning for a first offense to $300 for more than two offenses, she said.

Shortie McKinney, dean of UMass Lowell’s School of Health and Environment, said trans fat prohibitions will take at least one mystery out of the dining-out experience for consumers who often don’t know, or think about, how their meals are prepared.

“Since many restaurants are heavy users of oils that might have trans fats in them, the public is consuming a lot of food in restaurants and they don’t know how much of [the trans fats] they’re consuming,’’ McKinney said.

“I think it’s slowly changing the American diet and the international diet, because it’s an international movement as well. . . . I think we can already see that, through the leadership of the larger states, that it’s changing the products that are available.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.