A Social History of the New York City Trans Fat Policy

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Carol Faulkner


chronic disease, citizenship, consumers, food movements, sociology of science, trans fatty acids

Subject Categories

Business | Social and Behavioral Sciences


In December 2006, the New York City Board of Health passed an ordinance introduced by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to amend the Health Code and restrict the amount of artificial trans fatty acids served in restaurant foods. Artificial trans fats, generated during the process of partial hydrogenation of oils, were ubiquitous in refined, convenience, and fast foods and implicated in heart disease and other health concerns. As one of a patchwork of local policies aimed at addressing a gap in federal labeling laws, the New York City ordinance generated heated debate but ultimately succeeded and influenced other policies across the globe. The policy targeted a food additive to address growing concern for food-related chronic disease in public health. The safety of artificial trans fat had long been questioned, but the fat remained in the food supply for decades, aided by intractable scientific debate and industry influence. In the 1990s, new studies confirmed the danger of artificial trans fats. It was not until consumers embraced the new science and became active that artificial trans fats emerged as a public policy issue. As uniquely powerful public health entities, the New York City Board of Health and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene provided a platform that engaged consumers in transformational policy change. This dissertation used interview and archival data to show how consumer activism influenced the New York City artificial trans fat policy and affirmed the emerging scientific knowledge of the fat as a dangerous additive. Consumers applied diffuse and diverse forms of individual and collective activism to support regulation and elimination of the fat. They refused to purchase products that contained artificial trans fats using every day forms of science and political engagement, like reading labels, to support their social values for health, a transparent food supply, and consumer choice. Evidence from this social history shows consumers followed a U.S. tradition of consumer citizenship. It also illustrates how consumer activism serves as an important and powerful balance to the economic interests of industry.


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