You are here

No Sprinkles in Obama's America: Trans Fat, Hyperbole, and the Threat Nobody Is Talking about

“Say goodbye to your favorite sprinkled doughnuts,” warned Clayton Morris, guest host on Fox & Friends. “The [FDA] is now regulating Americans intake of trans fat…the amount needed to make something as small as a sprinkle on your doughnut may be banned.” Morris is referring to the decision announced by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 to reclassify partially hydrogenated oils—revoking its status as “generally recognized as safe” and creating a de facto ban on the artificial trans fat found in the oils. Fox’s overwrought presentation of the issue led many observers to ridicule the segment as well as opposition to the FDA action. The ribbing is warranted; discussion on both sides of the debate has overwhelmingly relied on emotional arguments and hyperbole. As a result, most people aren’t talking about the real threat this FDA action poses.

“Only Vladimir Putin would deny American children—and adults that need to rethink their dietary life choices—their God-given right to ingest sugar in whatever form they deem fit,” Elliot Hannon at Slate joked. “Your doughnuts are safe from Obama’s grasp” wrote Steve Benen at MSNBC. And Cenk Uygur dedicated almost seven minutes of his show, The Young Turks, to myth-busting/ridiculing the Fox segment. Uygur’s response included all of the primary arguments made by those who support an FDA trans fat ban and demonstrated how useless the Fox & Friends-style argument is.

Uygur takes all of the points made by Morris and shows why it is actually an argument for why trans fat ought to be banned. So what that Americans have almost completely eliminated trans fat from their diets already? “It was the FDA effort to eliminate trans fat in the first place that almost solved the problem and now they’re trying to solve it completely,” he asserts. Almost completely isn’t good enough; according to Uygur and the FDA, trans fat consumption is still responsible for a certain number of deaths so it is completely appropriate for the FDA to act to stop these preventable deaths. “Heart attacks, that’s what the right wing calls freedom,” he jokes. He is similarly unmoved by the argument that most food companies have voluntarily removed trans fat from their products. In fact, he points to this as a refutation of the idea that sprinkles or any other food will be taken off the market if trans fat is reclassified. “Nobody is banning any of these foods. It’s a total lie,” he says.

Uygur is right. Well, at least partially. FDA action in 2003 requiring manufacturers to list trans fat on nutritional labels did contribute to a reduction in consumption. Of course, it was also pressure from public health advocates and consumers’ demand for healthier products that resulted in the drop: from 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to around 1 gram a day in 2012. It’s worth noting, however, that the public health advocates crying out against trans fat now were the same ones who promoted the use of trans fat by vilifying saturated fat in the 1980s. Uygur is also right that the FDA isn’t banning any particular food: not doughnuts, sprinkles, pie crust; they’ll all survive a “trans fat ban.” They may need to be reformulated, may taste different, and be more susceptible to spoilage, but most products, if not all, will remain on shelves in some form or another.

Uygur also right when he argues that almost eliminating trans fat from our diet isn’t an argument against a complete ban. For instance, claiming that Americans consume next to zero arsenic isn’t going convince many people that we should let food companies put arsenic in our food. But this is the part of the discussion missing from both sides: trans fat isn’t arsenic and it’s not a poison: it’s a food. As with any other food or beverage, if you consume it in great enough quantities, there will be negative consequences. But trans fat isn’t “harmful”; it is unhealthful, potentially. So, the question is: when is it okay for the FDA to make decisions about what foods or ingredients can or can’t be part of a healthful diet. And is that something we want the FDA deciding at all?

The FDA’s rationale and most compelling argument for the “ban” is the claim that there is no level of trans fat consumption that is “harmless.” Total elimination, they say, will save 7,000 lives and stop 20,000 coronary events. However, these numbers are completely without scientific merit. They are extrapolated from studies that looked at very high levels of trans fat consumption, which did show increased health risks. However, the CDC scientists who came up with the numbers made the assumption that any level of trans fat consumption was harmful and most offensively that the correlation between consumption and risk is linear.

This assumption is completely inappropriate; there is no evidence to support the idea that the risk associated with trans fat consumption is linear—and, in fact, some to assume that it is not. Studies that looked at trans fat consumption of less than 2 percent of total energy (for reference, Americans get an average of 0.5% of total energy from trans fat) found no increased cardiovascular risk. Second, there are many substances that can be harmful at high levels of consumption that are harmless or even necessary at lower levels. Take sodium, for example: very high sodium consumption is associated with increased risk for hypertension, but too little sodium consumption can increase a person’s risk of stroke, heart attack, and death. The health risks of sodium consumption are not linear to 0 percent consumption. While it is probably safe to assume that getting no artificial trans fat in your diet won’t significantly increase your risk of negative health effects, it is not safe to assume that any level of trans fat consumption increases health risks.

This is why the FDA banning trans fat is so dangerous: it’s not inherently harmful, but it can be unhealthy if a person chooses to overconsume trans fat–containing foods as part of an overall unhealthy lifestyle. Does that warrant FDA action? If you say “yes,” what does that mean for other foods or ingredients? As I noted, any food or beverage can increase you risk of harm if you consume enough of it. If we allow FDA to ban trans fat based on shoddy science and political pressure, what is to stop the agency from going after sugar, salt, or caffeine?

Despite some of the rhetoric, the world isn’t going to end if the FDA gets its way and bans artificial tran fat. But it does represent a mission shift for the FDA. This ban isn’t about protecting consumers from something harmful in the food supply—it’s about protecting us from our own “bad” decision-making. Certainly, there are people who think that this is what is necessary to improve public health and trying to scare them by saying we’ll lose doughnuts, sprinkles, or cookies isn’t going to convince them. For everyone else, the question is: who do you want making decisions about your diet, you or the FDA?