Ding dong the witch is dead; killed by the federal government…well, that’s if the witch was a recluse people hardly ever saw, probably hasn’t hurt anyone, and was brought into town by the person burning her at the stake. The “witch” I’m referring to is trans fats, which were officially banned today via Food and Drug Administration (FDA) edict. A witch hunt is a good way to describe what the FDA did; revoking the additive’s determination as “generally recognized as safe,” because despite the fact that Americans have almost completely eliminated the substance from our diets voluntarily, the administration believes any amount of trans fats can be harmful. The fact that there is no scientific evidence to prove this didn’t seem to temper calls to “burn it at the stake.”
Back in 2003 Americans, ate an average of 4.6 grams of trans fats per day, but thanks to the efforts of some public health groups and diligent label-reading consumers, consumption dropped to around 1 gram per day by 2012. Despite this, the FDA announced plans in November 2013 to completely eliminate the additive because they believed completely eliminating the additive will save “10,000-20,000 lives annually.” This number is based on a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Despite the fact that all of the studies linking trans fats to adverse health effects only looked at very high levels of consumption (accounting for more than 5 percent of daily energy intake, versus the 0.6 percent we currently consume), the researchers assumed any trans fat consumption correlated with risk. Therefore, they only needed to take the risk seen from extremely high levels and calculate how much risk there would be at extremely low levels. According to the tentative determination:
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).
This is extremely problematic because it’s simply not known if there is a linear correlation with risk all the way down to zero consumption. Take sodium, for example; it can certainly be detrimental at very high consumption levels, but it is also deadly to consume too little sodium. As Dr. Eric Decker, head of the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts, noted, “It is very common for kinetics to not be linear especially at extremely low or high concentrations of bioactive agents. Therefore, it does not seem scientifically prudent to make a bold statement of how many deaths a food ingredient is causing without any clinical data.” It’s the dose that makes the poison: just about any food or beverage, including water, can become harmful if consumed in great enough quantities.
Ignoring whether or not there is a need for the FDA to completely eliminate trans fats from the American diet, one must question whether they should and what the consequences of a ban will be. Many forget that it is the dietary meddling of the government that caused the rise of trans fats in our diet in the first place. The American Heart Association, on which government dietary advisors base many of their recommendations, advised Americans beginning in the 1960s to reduce saturated fat and switch to vegetable oil (no big surprise the AHA only rose to national prominence with help from the maker of Crisco oil). As this Wall Street Journal article notes, Americans listened to AHA’s advice, going from nearly zero vegetable oil consumption in 1900 to consuming 7 to 8 percent of all calories from these oils.
What will the makers of frosting, pastries, and pie crust use instead of partially hydrogenated oils? Well, we don’t know yet.
Will they have less or possibly more risk than trans fats? Long before the FDA stepped in, companies—likely responding to consumer demand for less trans fat—had begun switching to something called interesterified fats. It is possible that with the complete elimination of PHOs, this is what food producers will substitute in. The problem is that numerous studies suggest that consuming interesterified fats may be worse for health than trans fat—worsening risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.
And will consumers know how to avoid these new kinds of fats by looking at labels? It is possible that the FDA’s ban will cause more harm—and more deaths—than good.
Finally, as I have argued in the past, this isn’t about trans fats: it’s a power-grab. Rather than protecting Americans from an acute threat in our food supply, the agency is attempting to ban a product that is only harmful if overconsumed and not mitigated by other lifestyle choices (like exercising).
Now that they’ve successfully stretched the boundaries of what we as a nation will let them do, what will they go after next? Based on the administration’s actions, it seems like salt is its next big target. Less than a year after announcing their plans for trans fats, 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 that is about 1000 mg less than the average consumption of almost every human population. Surely, the FDA must know better than every human on the planet what our bodies need.
The dietary recommendations provided by the government have never been good. From the start, they were based on assumption and political expediency and likely contributed to the massive increase in diabetes and obesity in our nation. The choices about what diet is best for us should be up to us—not bureaucrats and not biased scientists. Sometimes the devil holding the torch is far worse than the witch burning at the stake.