Transfats have been on the FDA’s radar for years. Yesterday, the agency finally dropped the proverbial meat mallet, telling food manufacturers that partially hydrogenated oils (also called transfats) are no longer considered “generally recognized as safe.” In other words, transfats are banned in the United States, and food companies have only three years to completely phase out their use. Naturally, this is all being done to save lives and reduce medical costs.
No one disputes that transfats are unhealthy. Yet that doesn’t mean that this ban makes sense. While some manufacturers will have to make changes to comply with the ban, most products will remain as is. That’s because, in the last decade, food makers have been voluntarily removing transfats from products. As a result — and also because consumers have learned that transfats are unhealthy — transfats in the American diet have declined precipitously. According to the CDC, since 2003, Americans’ transfat consumption has fallen by about 80 percent, to roughly 1 gram per day.
Given this natural decline, many are scratching their heads about this move by the FDA. Why suddenly ban transfats when food companies are already eliminating their use?
Perhaps its because our government nannies can’t bear that Americans are making healthy decisions on their own. They want to be able to take credit for ridding the world of transfats before they go extinct.
Naturally, the FDA’s announcement of the transfat ban was filled with over-the-top rhetoric. HHS Secretary Margaret Hamburg had already stated in an FDA press release from November 2013 that the ban “could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.” Yesterday, CDC commissioner Thomas Frieden — who prior to his appointment at the CDC served as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s health commissioner and helped institute New York City’s transfat ban — expressed his delight at the national ban, tweeting: “I applaud @US_FDA action to remove artificial transfats in processed foods; expected to prevent thousands of heart attacks every year.”
While certainly transfats are bad for you, there’s little to suggest that small amounts of transfats are dangerous or that eliminating them will save lives by reducing heart disease. That’s because many factors besides transfat consumption contribute to cardiovascular disease: smoking, alcohol use, weight, gender, genes, and other lifestyle choices. The occasional indulgence in an unhealthy treat that includes transfats is unlikely the behavior that puts someone over the top and into cardiac arrest.
And how are Americans still getting their 1 daily gram of transfats? Products such as sprinkles, cake frosting, doughnuts and other pastries, microwave popcorn, and some convenience foods like frozen pizzas, and pancake and pie-crust mixes sometimes still contain small amounts of transfats. Do you detect a pattern here? These are all foods that everyone knows should be eaten in moderation.
So how much more “healthy” will these products be when they have zero transfats? Not much. And interestingly, replacements for transfats are proving problematic. The food industry hasn’t yet found a replacement for transfats in every product, but many manufacturers have started replacing unhealthy but environmentally friendly transfats with almost equally unhealthy and less environmentally friendly palm oil. Palm oil comes primarily from Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries environmentalists bemoan for the crime of deforestation and endangering the habitat of orangutans. Palm oil is also extremely high in saturated fat, which people should limit in their diet, according to the latest medical advice. Ironically, people may end up with a diet that’s less healthy after the transfats ban — if they believe that transfat-free cake frosting and doughnuts are now okay to eat.
We’ve seen how such government guidance has backfired before. Note that government largely created the demand for transfats by warning of the dangers of butter and other animal-derived fats. And now the government is reversing course to push transfats out of the picture.
Wouldn’t it be better if the government just stayed out of the business of trying to tell people how to eat and stopped issuing bans on the ingredients food manufactures use to make their products?
Yesterday, Cato’s Walter Olson reacted to the transfat ban by warning that food activists see this as a test case for further bans of such embattled food ingredients as salt, sugar, and caffeine. This may seem farfetched to some, but don’t forget, just like transfats are bad in large quantities, so are salt, sugar, and caffeine. Why not ban these ingredients, too?
Think of the lives saved, the millions saved in medical costs.
Julie Gunlock writes about food for the Independent Women’s Forum.