The FDA and the Trans Fat Ban

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Our opinion piece this week comes from the blog of Dr. Michael R. Eades:

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal today makes the point that the recent ruling by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to rid the American diet of trans fats more or less hastens what the market was already doing.  And as I never tire of harping about, this piece also reminds us that it was the same FDA and other governmental agencies that foisted trans fats upon us in the first place.

WSJ Trans Fat editorial

Before we get into the fat of the editorial, so to speak, let me take a little side trip to show you a way you can skirt the paywall of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and read anything written without having to pay for it.  The WSJ, like many online news sources, makes money from advertising.  The paper also makes money from subscriptions.  In order to maximize its ad revenue, the WSJ articles have to rank high in Google, but if an article resides behind a firewall Google can’t breach, then Google doesn’t know it exists and isn’t able to use it to calculate the ranking of the paper.  Which suspends the WSJ on the horns of a dilemma.  Do they give the articles away free, get a higher Google rating, and lose the subscription fees, or do they keep the subscription income and suffer in their Google rankings, which means less ad money?  The way the WSJ has solved the problem is by making the all the articles available to the Google search engines while at the same time making them unavailable to anyone who is on the WSJ site and tries to read the full article.

Which gives you the ability to read anything you want in the WSJ by simply Googling the Wall Street Journal and the exact name of the article you want to read.

For example, if you wanted to read the editorial above, you would simply go to Google and enter these words into the search window:  wall street journal trans fats transphobia

If you go that, you’ll be taken to the full text version.  Give it a try.  Then try going through the WSJ site linked here.  When you do, you’ll get a message telling you you need to subscribe to read the rest of the article.

I’ve gone ahead and Googled it for you using the Let Me Google That For You function, which I use when I’m feeling particularly smart assed and someone has asked me a question he/she could just as easily Googled.  It’s a great little way to harmlessly annoy friends and family or anyone else who asks you to spend your time Googling something they themselves could have done. Makes the point.

I’m not doing this to annoy you, however, it just makes it an easy way for me to link to the editorial above.  It will be the first one on the list that comes up when the LMGTFY function does its work.  And here is a little video showing how to use the LMGTFY function should you decide you want to use it yourself.

Okay, digression over.  I hope you at least got something worthwhile from it.

In my view, the editorial makes a couple of key points well worth remembering.

First, though the FDA finally came through and issued a ban (which really isn’t a ban – you can read about it in a post I wrote a while back) against trans fats, it should always be remembered that the government itself was in great part responsible for trans fats replacing good fats in many foods.

… the irony is that government helped to introduce trans fats into the U.S. food supply. The mania over saturated fats in the 1980s was stoked by a series of studies out of the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences that linked those lipids to heart disease. Pressure groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest then targeted food manufacturers for “poisoning Americans” and promoted partially hydrogenated oils as healthier alternatives to lard, butter and coconut oil.

The “low fat” products that resulted often contained more salt and sugar—and trans fats—and thus were probably worse for eaters. The lesson, as always, is to beware government dietary advice other than moderation.

I’ve written about this situation multiple times in the past.  Michael Jacobson (The Guy from CSPI) and the other do-gooders at the CSPI continuously badgered the FDA to force food manufacturers to remove saturated fats from foods and replace them with trans fats.  Now that trans fats have been shown to be problematic, these same agitators were the loudest voices demanding that the government do something to get trans fats out of the food supply.

The moral of the story — in my view, at least — is that government shouldn’t be in the business of telling us what we should or shouldn’t eat.  Diet fads come and go.  Right now the pendulum is swinging more in the direction of the government wanting to tax soft drinks and other sugar rich foods.  But I think that is a dangerous proposition for a couple of reasons.  First, if the dietary winds change, the government could start taxing meat, cheese, eggs and cream because they contain a lot of fat and cholesterol.  Which would not be a good thing.

Second, as Dr. Edward Smith showed over 150 years ago, if the prices of sugar-containing foods go up, people won’t stop buying them; they’ll simply scrimp and short themselves of more nutrition foods. (I apologize for the unreadable graphs in the link – the new site isn’t completely up to snuff yet.)

Much better, in my opinion, for the government to stay out of the business of telling us what we should or shouldn’t eat. I don’t have a problem with labeling laws.  Let them simply tell us what’s in it, and we can make up our own minds.

Another important point the WSJ editorial makes is that this ruling opens the door to legal action against the food industry.

The FDA’s trans fat reversal removes a “generally recognized as safe” label, and the main beneficiary will be the trial bar that is trying to convert Big Food into Big Tobacco. “There is a real risk here that the ruling will open up the industry to class action and tort lawsuits,” says Jennifer Quinn-Barabanov, a commercial litigation expert at Steptoe & Johnson. Most manufacturers used partially hydrogenated oils at one time or another, and the FDA is removing a legal defense that this “was reasonable based on the available scientific research,” she adds.

I think this situation could be disastrous for the food industry, and by extension, for the rest of us. Huge legal fees mean higher prices for food for all of us.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at what has happened to the price of tobacco products over the past couple of decades.

Unlike the tobacco companies, food manufacturers were flim flammed by Uncle Sam.  First they were told to rid their products of saturated fat and replace it with trans fat.  Then when trans fats were found to be more problematic than the saturated fats they replaced, the FDA tells them to change course again.  And leaves them open to the predations of the legal system.  Which could cost us all.  A lot.

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