FDA’s Trans Fat “Ban” a First Foray into Controlling Americans’ Diets

Last November, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its plan to revoke the “Generally Recognized As Safe” designation for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which would create a de facto ban on the additive that is still used in foods such as pie crust, pastries, shortening, frostings, and fried foods.

Many health-conscious Americans make an effort to avoid PHOs or trans fats—carefully reading labels to make sure the disfavored fat is limited in their diets. The ingredient is already considered by most to be something consumed as little as possible, evidenced by the fact that Americans have voluntarily reduced consumption from an average of 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to around 1 gram a day in 2012. This, as I’ve argued in the past, is why the FDA targeted trans fats for its first-ever attempt to regulate ingredients it finds not harmful in the acute sense, but unhealthy; because they knew few would protest the banishing of an ingredient most already find distasteful. But, this sets the precedent that will make it possible for the FDA to go after other ingredients in the future, like salt, sugar, and caffeine.

It is safe to say that one of the major driving factors behind the massive decrease in trans fat consumption are consumer advocates, such as the Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) who fought to get trans fats added to labels and spread the word about the possible negative health consequence of consuming trans fats. Of course, it was CSPI that set the stage for trans fats to take over the market when they labeled saturated fats a “poison” (a position thoroughly discredited now) and touted trans fats as a healthier alternative (see CSPI’s 1988 Saturated Fat Attack!). Now, CSPI and the FDA insist that total elimination is necessary to save lives because any amount of trans fat consumption can lead to heart disease and death, an assertion wholly unsupported by research.

In a new paper from the Heritage Foundation, Daren Bakst writes in detail about why attempts to completely eliminate artificial trans fats could be detrimental to Americans’ overall health. The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) 2005 Dietary Reference Intake report, which the FDA’s trans fat ban heavily relied upon, notes that “[because trans fatty acids are unavoidable in ordinary, nonvegan diets, consuming 0 percent of energy would require significant changes in patterns of dietary intake. As with saturated fatty acids, such adjustments may introduce undesirable effects (e.g., elimination of commercially prepared foods, dairy products, and meats that contain trans fatty acids may result in inadequate intakes of protein and certain micronutrients) and unknown and unquantifiable health risks.”

Furthermore, as Bakst notes, the assertion made by FDA that any amount of trans fats is associated with increased health risks is completely unfounded and an inappropriate assumption. The FDA’s assertion that the elimination of PHOs would save 10,000-20,000 lives annually is based upon a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which used the FDA’s own estimate that 240 to 480 coronary heart disease (CHD) deaths could be prevented each year if trans fatty acid (TFA) intake was reduced by 0.04% of energy. According to the study,

Extrapolating from this FDA estimate, assuming a linear association with health effects, and no effects of other interventions, and adjusting to current US statistics on coronary events (myocardial infarction or fatal CHD), it is possible that eliminating industrially produced TYFAs from current levels (0.6% of energy) may potentially prevent as many as 10,000 to 20,000 coronary events and 3000 to 7000 CHD deaths annually” (emphasis added).

The assumption, however, that the health effects are linear is wildly inappropriate. Take, for example, salt. At very high consumption rates sodium is associated with hypertension, but too little salt increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and death. The “hazard” risk with sodium consumption is certainly not linear all the way to 0% consumption. And there’s no reason to believe the same is true for trans fats.

Evidence that the trans fat ban was just the first step in the FDA’s ambitious plan to make the American diet closer to the agency’s ideal come from the fact that not even a year after their trans fat decision the FDA is going after salt. In June the administration announced plans to get food manufacturers to “voluntarily” reduce sodium in their foods in order to “help” Americans reduce salt intake to the government recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams a day. A rate which is in all probability too low, considering that humans around the world have consistently consumed around 3,700 milligram since it was studied in the 1950s—a sign that salt consumption is unconscious and physiologically determined.  Yet, the FDA thinks it knows better than the entire human population.

While some may argue that we need the FDA to protect consumers from dangers in the food supply forcing us to consume a “healthier” diet is certainly outside of its purview. As Bakst put it, a ban on trans fats for being unhealthy, “would be taking the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938 into novel areas that are unrelated to the food safety issues that the law is designed to regulate. It would do so by regulating nutrition and diet through limiting food choices. Thus, the agency is trying to conflate nutritional and dietary well-being with ‘safety’.”

Americans should be free to consume as healthy or as unhealthy a diet as they see fit. Certainly, we shouldn’t be taking advice from the government with its long track record of bad nutritional advice, especially when it seems to be taking its marching orders from a political group that has an even worse track record for getting it right.