The New York City government would like to ban the use of trans fat in all the restaurants in all five boroughs of New York City.
It is a mistake on many levels.
The typical argument against the proposal is health-based. Elizabeth M. Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health wrote a column that explained:
Yes, high levels of dietary trans fats, derived primarily from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, can raise levels of LDL, the so-called “bad” cholesterol. But TFAs are only one of several dietary factors that affect blood cholesterol levels.
More important, cholesterol is only one of several factors that may influence the risk of heart disease. Cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity all contribute far more to heart disease than any specific dietary ingredient.
Any practicing physician who has treated patients with elevated cholesterol levels will tell you that even the strictest low-fat diets often result only in modest cholesterol reduction. So how could we expect significant effects from banishing just one type of fat — one that represents only 2% of our total daily calorie intake, and which doesn’t contribute more calories than other types of fat?
And she also points out that you can’t oppose a type of food on health grounds without knowing the risks of what might take its place. As she explains:
To truly appreciate the hysteria here, consider: What will replace the allegedly malicious TFAs?
In the late 1980s, the “food police” at the Ralph Nader-inspired Center for Science in the Public Interest fomented a frenzy about the beef tallow that fast-food restaurants used to fry potatoes because it contains cholesterol-raising saturated fats — and demanded that they stop it. And what did CSPI recommend to take its place? Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils with TFAs. Now the wheel has turned and CSPI is shamelessly “outraged” over trans fats.
There is a long tradition in nutrition education that there is no such thing as a bad food. Everything is a matter of portion size and frequency and, in fact, if one is in good health with good cholesterol numbers, there is no science indicating that occasionally consuming some trans fat will do anything to your life expectancy.
Now all this is not to say that I think we should all eat trans fat. There are many people with specific health conditions, such as elevated cholesterol, for which it is not advised.
There are many food vendors who now use “Trans Fat Free” as a marketing tool. Wendy’s, for example, has made a point of getting rid of trans fat in most of its products.
I think it is fine if people want to buy these products. But the idea of singling out this one health-related issue and banning it is bizarre. Wendy’s may ban trans fat, but they are probably the biggest marketer in America of late-night eating. And banning late-night eating would probably do a lot more for the health of Americans than does banning trans fat.
But the whole move to ban trans fat is symptomatic of a move in society that is very dangerous. Originally public health restrictions were imposed for “public” reasons; they involved communicable diseases, and actions were taken to prevent the spread of such diseases. Even restrictions on alcohol were addressing a public problem such as the effect alcohol had on mobs of urban young men during industrialization.
But trans fat is tasty. The New York Post did a little anecdotal taste test here. If people want to take the risk of eating it because they prefer it on their french fries, who are we to stop them?
This notion that city councils and other units of government are there to be everyone’s nanny ordering everyone around is a kind of petty tyranny.
Our society is built on the idea of individuals making decisions for themselves… and taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.
If we start making these very minor decisions for the people, citizens will get out of practice in making decisions. Soon enough, we will turn around and find that the ability to make big decisions has atrophied, and democracy as we know it will be impossible.