Minneapolis and St. Paul are preparing ordinances to ban chain restaurants and other dining outlets from using trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease and elevated cholesterol levels.
Ordinances are also in the works in both cities to require calorie labels on menus and menu boards.
The proposals could go to the two city councils next month.
A number of cities, counties and states across the nation have imposed or explored bans and labels in the name of public health. New York City imposed an all-out ban on trans fats in restaurant-prepared food. California will require chain restaurants to list calorie information on menus by 2011.
Americans have been eating out more and eating more processed foods, and obesity rates are increasing. The two trends underscore the need to have information readily available for consumers to make healthful choices, health advocates say.
Critics argue that the regulations are another step toward the creation of a nanny state. Still, many national restaurant chains -- from Applebee's to KFC to Subway -- already have eliminated or are working to cut out trans fats.
The state level
The topic is gaining a toehold in the Legislature, too: A state House committee will hold a hearing on menu labeling Tuesday afternoon.
"It's a public health initiative to get them [trans fats] out of diets," said Council Member Lee Helgen, who is sponsoring the measure in St. Paul. "Alternatives are readily available."
Trans fats are found in deep-fried foods, snack foods and shortening. They're created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil, and they lengthen shelf life, keep foods crispy and provide the "mouth feel" that food scientists say improves flavor.
But trans fats also have been linked to heart disease. Studies also have shown that trans fats raise LDL, the so called "bad cholesterol," and lower HDL, the "good cholesterol."
The Food and Drug Administration required that food nutrition labels show trans fat amounts in 2006.
The Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support conducted a survey last year looking at how easy it was to find calorie information at chain restaurants. Of 203 establishments, about half provided at least limited information and 23 percent had information at the point of purchase. About 26 percent provided calorie information upon request. None, the survey found, posted calorie information on menu boards.
The St. Paul ordinance would apply to chain restaurants that have at least 15 locations nationwide. Foods containing vegetable shortening, margarine or any partially hydrogenated vegetable oil would be affected. The ordinance wouldn't affect prepackaged foods with nutrition information labels.
The calorie-labeling ordinance would apply only to food establishments with at least 15 locations nationwide and only to standard menu items. The labels would be required on menus or menu boards.
The Minneapolis proposal likely would apply the trans-fat ban to restaurants, groceries and bakeries, with different phase-in periods for each, said Council Member Ralph Remington. Some one- or two-outlet businesses might be exempted.
A separate caloric labeling requirement for menus in Minneapolis would apply only to restaurants with at least 15 outlets nationwide.
A metro-wide group, the Healthy Menus Coalition, supports the labeling ordinance.
"Of the two issues, I'd say menu labeling is more controversial," said David Siegel, executive vice president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association.
Some want national standard
Many -- if not most -- of the businesses in the industry have recognized the bans are going to progress and have switched away from trans fats or are in the process, he said.
As for the labeling initiatives, Siegel said a growing patchwork of inconsistent rules is causing frustration.
"Let's give information to consumers and create a national standard like we did in grocery stores," Siegel said.
The National Restaurant Association has supported a federal proposal, the Labeling Education and Nutrition (LEAN) Act, that would apply a national standard for providing nutritional information at restaurants. It wouldn't necessarily require calorie information on menus or menu boards, but on another sign or as an insert.
Siegel said there are "legitimate cost issues" with requiring labels on menus and menu boards. Plus, he added, the labels can mean clutter.
Action in the suburbs
Remington and colleague Betsy Hodges said an effort is being made to reach out to suburbs, such as Bloomington and Richfield, to join the effort. However, he doesn't want to delay the introduction for too long.
"I'm finding that people are interested in exploring the issue," Hodges said.
Remington sees the measures as dealing with a critical public health issue.
But Council President Barbara Johnson, formerly a nurse, said she thinks a more effective approach would be to educate students as home economics classes used to do.
"I am not someone who views this sort of thing as essential to city government. I'm a bit skeptical," Johnson said.
Remington disagreed: "This is commonly accepted good public policy."
Siegel also agrees that more education -- beyond calorie labels -- is needed to fight obesity.
"Where does personal responsibility come in as opposed to regulating people's behavior?" he asked.
Chris Havens • 651-298-1542 Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438