Stand Down, Trans Fat Fighters

Some trans fat may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers

Attention Mr. and Mrs. America:

Armies of activists and politicians think you’ve let yourselves go, and the foot soldiers in the “War on Fat” will do just about anything to get you to their target weight. They’ll tax junk food, restrict fast food advertising, and even reconfigure your neighborhood if it’ll get you to drive less. Now the crosshairs have settled on trans fat. The naughty little substance helps make donuts, chips, and other foods taste better and store longer, but it also increases levels of “bad” cholesterol.

What to do? Plenty of public health officials demand zero tolerance. The perpetually alarmed Center for Science in the Public Interest aims to take trans fat “entirely out of the food supply,” and recently Dr. David Katz of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center told lawmakers in Connecticut’s Public Health Committee that trans fat is a poison that should be banned from restaurants. Now many politicians are taking up arms.

New York and Philadelphia have banned the scourge, and other cities, as well as more than a dozen states are drawing up battle plans. But trans fat hardliners should stand down. They have no right to regulate what we shove down our pie holes, and their crusade may fail on its ultimate aim-making us thinner.

With so many agitated activists and politicians, you might assume that we Americans are gorging on trans fat. But trans fat comprises about 2 percent of the average American’s daily caloric intake. The American Heart Association says the figure should be 1 percent, but to reach this goal, someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day doesn’t have to undergo a dietary overall. Simply dropping the number of calories that come from trans fats from 40 to 20 will do the trick.

And even without additional bans, chances are Americans will eat less trans fat in the future. From Taco Bell to Starbucks, many companies have already sworn off trans fats and new FDA labeling requirements make it easier for consumers to spot “poisoned” foods.

Some public health experts worry that the battle against trans fat now tilts toward hysteria. The American Council on Science and Health listed “Trans fatty acids cause obesity and heart disease” as its number one unfounded health scare of 2006. Some news reports describe trans fat as “fattier” than other fats, but ACSH notes that all fats contain the same amount of calories. So while there are cholesterol-related reasons to cut back on trans fats, merely trading trans fat for, say, saturated fat will not get our chubby nation any thinner. Indeed if diners reach for the trans fat free fries because they think they’re healthier than regular fries, they may end up downing more fries.

And it turns out that all trans fats aren’t equally evil. Keith-Thomas Ayoob of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine says trans fats that occur naturally in milk, meat, and other foods “might even be good for you.” He points to preliminary research that suggests a particular type of trans fat may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Yet even if lawmakers steer clear of the natural variety, the crude “trans fat bad!” drumbeat will still be ringing in our heads, and that could make some more inclined to avoid trans fat foods all together.

The prohibitionist mind has room for two categories, good and bad. If trans fat is a poison, then it’s clearly bad. But the prohibitionist worldview often conflicts with a fundamental principle of toxicology-the dose makes the poison. In moderate amounts, alcohol is a health aid; in large amounts it’s a poison. Two aspirin cure your headache; two hundred may kill you. Artificial trans fats may have no health benefits, but one need not go cold turkey to live a perfectly healthy life. Dr. Ayoob’s “trans action” plan allows for one serving of deep-fried food per week, and diets that allow for occasional indulgence may be easier to stick with than those that demand abstinence.

There’s another reason to greet today’s anti-trans fat warriors with skepticism: Decades ago they were pushing for greater use of this “poison.” In 1988 CSPI declared: “[T]here is little good evidenced that trans fats cause any more harm than other fats … All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up.”

Good thing we didn’t slap restaurants with mandates back then. At the time CPSI was in step with current scientific understanding, but scientific understanding evolves. Committing to bans based on today’s knowledge makes it harder to react to future scientific developments. Resisting today’s would-be banners would spare us from their shortsightedness, and it might also spare them the trouble of fighting to undo laws they once championed.