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Happy “No Food is Junk Food” Day!

Yes, there’s a holiday for everything, but National Junk Food Day has particular relevance in light of a recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration. As the Cato Institute pointed out, the foods we indulge in today may be very different when we celebrate next year. That is because the FDA decided to create a de facto ban on partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (aka artificial trans fats). While most food producers eliminated the much maligned additive in the last 15 years and Americans have reduced consumption from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to less than a gram in 2013, some products still contain trans fats—most of which are sweets that require long shelf-life. Despite a dearth of research on the effect of consuming trans fats at the low levels Americans do, the FDA asserted that trans fats were still leading to a certain number of deaths each year. So, the agency decided to revoke the “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) status of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, requiring food producers to petition the government and prove their use of PHOs is safe before they can use it.

Of course, they never bothered to ask what food manufacturers would switch to and whether it would be better or worse for our health. Will we know to look for and limit interesterified fats which may lead to an increased risk of diabetes? Will we worry about palm oil? It’s possible that by strong-arming the industry to speed up the elimination of trans fats that was already underway, the FDA’s action may make us less healthy. And herein lies the problem: no food is inherently harmful, it’s all about the quantity you eat. In other words, the dose makes the poison. And the same is true for so-called “junk food.” As I wrote last year, there is no such thing.

“[National Junk Food Day is] a good opportunity to address the myth of junk food. I say myth because junk food is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. There is food that is less nutritious or perhaps higher in calories than what people normally think of as ‘health foods,’ but calling food ‘junk’ implies that is without value. As Professors Stanley Feldman (of London University and the Imperial College School of Medicine) Vincent Marks (of the University of Surrey), put it in their book Panic Nation,’[e]ither something is a food, in which case it is not junk, or it has no nutritional value, in which case it cannot be called a food.’”

The trans fat ban will certainly have unintended consequences and it won’t be the first time government nutritional advice made us less healthy. As I’ve pointed out previously, the government vilification of saturated fat and cholesterol along with its recommendation of consuming more carbohydrates likely spurred on the obesity crisis (if not causing it). Agencies like the CDC continue to tell Americans to reduce their consumption of salt to levels that could be dangerous for certain groups, despite the fact that research shows a person’s level of sodium consumption is unconscious and physiologically determined. Even in clinical trials while some were given sodium tablets and others received a placebo, they all altered their eating behavior to get back to their “set” level of sodium consumption. Yet, our government continues to assert that it knows more than everyone on earth and spends millions in a futile attempt to make us comply with what it thinks we ought to eat.  

The problem is that targeting specific ingredients does not affect the cause of the problems they’re trying to address, like obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. The cause is (among other things) an unhealthy lifestyle—not any one particular food or ingredient. Trans fats, alcohol, salt, sugar, etc. are not inherently harmful, but when over-consumed as part of a unhealthy lifestyle that is when we run into trouble. Almost any food can become toxic if over-consumed (even water). Conversely, almost any substance can be safe in small enough quantities. Arsenic, for example, is safe at low levels, but deadly at higher levels.

Most worrisome is that this ban on trans fats is just the latest in a string of government attempts to take control of what we eat (for our own good, of course). And it gives the more paternalistic members of the FDA exactly what they want; an opportunity to use their power to make decisions about the healthfulness of a diet as opposed to the unforeseen dangers of a particular food or additive. This may seem like a subtle shift, but it betrays a view of the American public that many public health advocates share. As I wrote last year:

“Whether it’s warning letters on soda, junk food taxes, pressuring food makers to reduce ingredients like salt or caffeine, or restricting sales and increasing prices on alcohol, proposals by public health advocates have one thing in common: an assertion that people are not smart enough or strong enough to consume in moderation foods and ingredients that can make up an unhealthy diet when over-consumed. Which foods they consider ‘junk’ are based on ‘accepted wisdom’ about what constitutes an unhealthy food. However, the track record for these advocates as well as government agencies in implementing ‘accepted wisdom,’ about nutrition is less than stellar.”

Now that they have successfully bullied us into doing what we probably would have accomplished voluntarily in a few years, what is on the horizon for FDA activists? It could be anything; caffeine, salt, sugar, artificial sweeteners. It could be anything (caffeine, salt, sugar, artificial sweeteners) now that the FDA has established that its charge includes banning foods that aren’t harmful as commonly used, but may become harmful if a person’s overall lifestyle is unhealthy. I’ll leave you with my conclusion from last year’s No Food is Junk Food Day post:

“Food, as every culture recognizes, isn’t just about feeding the body. A piece of birthday cake, a bottle of wine with a friend, a few pieces of candy at Halloween—these wouldn’t be ‘healthy’ if they were the only things you ate, but in moderation they are certainly part of healthy diet that feeds the body and fuels the soul. Beyond its nutrients, the pleasure a person derives from a food is value enough to preclude its being labelled as worthless ‘junk.’ So, instead of acknowledging ‘Junk Food Day’ celebrate ‘There’s No Such Thing as Junk Food Day’ and recognize that nobody should be punished or made to feel guilty about partaking in the small indulgences that make life worth living.”