The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.".... ....Elbert Hubbard.

Commentary of the Day - December 30, 2006: Trans Facts.

In a recent article entitled "What Will They Ban Next?" libertarian commentator John Stossel bemoaned the decision of New York City to ban trans-fats from restaurant food.  Stossel's basic argument was that the individual should have the right to choose whether or not to consume foods that are known to be unhealthy, and that the government should keep its nose out of such decisions.  On the surface that seems to be a reasonable enough argument but the IP thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the trans-fat "controversy", and the decision of governmental agencies not only to warn folks about the risks of consuming trans-fats but also to go so far as to ban them outright in restaurant foods as New York City has done.

While very small amounts of trans-fat occurs naturally in meat and dairy products, the vast majority of trans-fat consumed in a person's diet come from vegetable oils that have been partially hydrogenated by chemical processes.  The hydrogenation process converts the oils into semi-solid fats that have a long shelf life.  Crisco, which appeared on the market in 1911, and margarines that became popular during the first half of the 20th century are examples of partially hydrogenated fats (many of these products including Crisco sold in the United States have been reformulated recently to reduce or eliminate trans-fat content).  These partially hydrogenated fats frequently are used in the fast food industry for deep frying because they are more stable than non-hydrogenated oils, which means that they can be used for a longer time.  They also have been used extensively in commercial baked goods because they help to give these products long shelf lives.

Unfortunately, there is increasing scientific evidence that the consumption of trans-fat increases the risk of coronary heart disease, and it is estimated that the complete elimination of trans-fat from the diet could reduce the number of heart attacks by as much as 20%.  Unlike saturated fats (such as butter and palm kernel oil), which raise the level of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol in the blood, trans-fats both raise the level of bad cholesterol and lower the level of "good" (HDL) cholesterol.  Thus, compared to other fats, only relatively small amounts of trans-fat in a person's diet significantly increase the risk for coronary heart disease.  Based on numerous research studies showing the danger of trans-fat in the diet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring the nutritional labels found on commercial food products and supplements to include information about trans-fat content starting on January 1, 2006.  In addition, the FDA and health educators began public information campaigns to educate the people about the dangers of trans-fats in the diet.  Not surprisingly, manufacturers quickly found ways to eliminate trans-fats from most of their packaged food products in the short time since that requirement went into effect.  In addition, responding to pressure from health and consumer groups, several national restaurant chains have begun to remove trans-fats from their foods.  While it often is claimed that trans-fats give particular fast food offerings such as French fries their characteristic taste or texture, few consumers have been able to tell the difference when oils that do not contain trans-fats are used for deep frying.

Where Stossel, who seems to value freedom of choice above everything else, gets it wrong is his assumption that individuals are always free to choose.  In fact, up to  January 1, 2006 anyone who ate packaged food or who ate a restaurant meal had no freedom to choose to avoid trans-fats, because the commercial food industry was not required to include the amount of trans-fats on nutritional labels.  This was the same commercial food industry that resisted any kind of nutritional labeling requirements for years.  And that's exactly the problem that we have today with regard to restaurant food.  Restaurant operators are loathe to list the nutritional composition of the meals they serve lest their customers have second thoughts about ordering that double cheeseburger (490 Calories, 26 grams of total fat, 12 grams of saturated fat (60% of the maximum recommended daily value) and the medium fries (380 Calories, 20 grams of total fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, 5 grams of trans-fats, and 220 mg of sodium for the McDonald's version of these offerings).

Sure, the average consumer probably knows that a double cheeseburger and medium fries is not exactly a healthful meal; however, because trans-fats are used in the preparation of a wide variety of food products, the consumer often has no way of knowing if that restaurant entree was sauteed in pure canola oil with no trans-fats or in some other oil loaded with trans-fats.  Without that knowledge consumers really have no choice at all.

Now it is true that New York City could have taken another path, and required restaurants to list the trans-fat contents of their meals directly on the menu so that consumers could make up their own minds.  But that probably would have caused more problems than simply requiring restaurants to use the readily available substitutes that contain no trans-fats.

Stossel's argument for individual choice also suffers from the fact that the choices that individuals make often visit consequences on others; and, choices that affect one's health are a prime example of this.  More than likely, Mr. Stossel's health care costs are covered by insurance.  If he chooses an unhealthy lifestyle that leads to a chronic illness such as coronary heart disease or diabetes, he affects not only himself and his family, but he also causes health insurance rates to rise for the rest of us.  That's why the IP favors government intervention to require folks to fasten their seatbelts when they drive their cars and to wear helmets when they ride motorcycles.

We can't always keep other people from making stupid choices, but we do have a right to take those easy actions that reduce the impact of those stupid choices on ourselves!

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