June 20, 2008
Should trans fats or other demonstrably unhealthy foods be banned or heavily regulated? No -- at least, not right away. From a moral standpoint, it's absurd for a government that allows the sale of an undeniably deadly product (tobacco) to prohibit the sale of substance that is far less dangerous. Nor would it move our food culture toward greater consumer empowerment. Instead, government should spend the next decade teaching consumers to reject such foods voluntarily -- thus restoring some of the responsibility for food to the people who use it.
Not that trans fats aren't worth worrying about. Otherwise known as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, they're used in a broad array of foods -- everything from cookies and crackers to cream fillings and deep-fat frying, and are implicated in higher levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, a greater risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
That said, trans fats do not pose an immediate risk of massive injury or death, in the way that, say, melamine or E. coli do. Further, unlike contaminants or pathogens, trans fats aren't hidden. Manufacturers are required to indicate on the label whether foods contain trans fats, so consumers, technically, have the information they need to make a healthy choice.
Unfortunately, what too many consumers don't have is a sufficient knowledge of food and diet to use that information effectively. Consumers are, in fact, astonishingly ignorant when it comes to nutrition generally or the health consequences of certain foods. Much of our "knowledge" about diet comes from often-incomplete or inaccurate media stories -- many of which are driven by market-hungry food companies or publicity-hungry activists.
For example, while there is some evidence that high-fructose corn syrup can contribute to obesity more readily than other simple sugars, it is the rising consumption of simple sugars generally -- the infamous "empty calories" -- that is the real health problem here. And yet, because of our fragmented knowledge of food and diet, many consumers will do everything they can to avoid high-fructose corn syrup but little to avoid other simple sugars.
So rather than ban HFCS or trans fats or any of these unhealthy foods, it would be far more effective to embark on an aggressive campaign to education consumers -- much as we've done with tobacco. In the case of trans fats, consumers need to understand what these substances are, why the industry uses them and what the consequences are. If information on trans fats and other "bad" foods were provided within a broader program of nutrition awareness, consumers might gradually eliminate the use of trans fats voluntarily, in the same way that many people have rejected tobacco. I also suspect that, as the public became more fluent in the language of diet and nutrition, the food industry would be less and less inclined to use such ingredients.
Of course, if consumption doesn't decline, and if the food industry continues to sell trans fats, perhaps a ban could be justified. But the political and economic resources needed to enact and enforce such a law would make it that much harder for the FDA and other agencies to tackle the real problems with the food supply, such as food-borne illness or tainted imports -- problems consumer are far less able to tackle themselves.
As important, while it might save lives and reduce medical costs, a ban would simply extend the dangerous illusion that consumers needn't worry about what they eat. Because at the end of day, being worried about our food system is the only way we're going to change it.
Paul Roberts writes about the economics and politics of food, energy and other key "inputs." His most recent book, "The End of Food," has just been published by Houghton Mifflin.
"Despite the rumors, there is little good evidence that trans fats cause any more harm than other fats." That was Elaine Blume urging consumers not to let concerns about trans fats scare them away from margarine in a 1988 newsletter from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Today, of course, the group has changed its tune and is actively campaigning for governments to ban the use of trans fats in our foods.
We know more today than we did in the 1980s about the risks of trans fats, but the reversal illustrates the problem with allowing activists and experts to take control of our diets. Trans fats are a substance in our foods, not a toxic substance. As with other kinds of fats, they have their particular uses in the kitchen and should be consumed in moderation. To ban them is not the answer. I agree that the best approach is to educate consumers and let them make their own decisions; food marketers eager to cash in on the trans fat panic have shown themselves entirely capable of responding to demand.
Even if the use of trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup and other supposedly villainous ingredients is never completely eliminated, we should not impose legislated bans. Regardless of how many warnings are published, there will always be intransigent consumers who persist in behaviors that drive the scolds at CSPI up the wall. The comparison to smoking is a good one. Research by W. Kip Viscusi indicates today's smokers actually overestimate the dangers of cigarettes; punitive taxes more than compensate for any external costs they may impose on society. If they persist in their habit despite all this, it is not the government's place to interfere.
Our goal should be to reduce unhealthy consumption, not to mandate 100% compliance with activists' decrees.
In the last few decades, the public health establishment has made a troubling transition from protecting consumers from adulterated products and informing them of risks to taking away their judgment entirely. They've created what you aptly call the "dangerous illusion" that it's someone else's job to determine what is safe and ban the things that aren't.
As with government-enforced smoking bans, which now extend in some places even to wide open parks and residents' own apartments, regulations will be guided more by political popularity and publicity-seeking advocacy groups than by any rational balancing of costs and benefits. We'll be much better off putting decisions back in the hands of consumers and advising the common sense approach to keeping healthy: moderation with indulgent foods, a more balanced diet and sufficient exercise.
Today's second question asks, "What other products that we consume should be banned or heavily regulated?" We should ask instead, "Why are we talking about bans in the first place? And what bans and regulations should we repeal?"
Jacob Grier is a bartender and think tank PR manager. He writes about food and regulation at www.jacobgrier.com.
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