New York City Bans Science

The New York City Board of Health this week banned the use of trans fats by restaurants. The decision is directly traceable back to the “research” of Harvard University’s Alberto Ascherio and Walter Willett, the promoters-in-chief of trans fats hysteria.

Now that the Board has deemed their dubious trans fats research suitable for dictating public policy, New Yorkers ought to hope that Ascherio and Willett don’t press the Board to implement some of their other published research that is similar in "quality" to their trans fats work.

New Yorkers could, for example, see restaurants banned from serving potatoes, peas, peanuts, beans, lentils, orange juice and grapefruit juice. Ascherio-Willett reported an increase in the risk of heart disease among consumers of these foods in the Annals of Internal Medicine (June 2001). Although none of those slight correlations were statistically meaningful — and, in all probability, were simply meaningless chance occurrences — a similar shortcoming didn’t seem to matter to the Board when it came to their trans fats research.

Indian restaurants could be banned from cooking with sunflower oil. Ascherio-Willett once found that consumers of Indian food cooked in sunflower oil were up to 3 times more likely to suffer heart attacks than consumers of Indian food cooked in mustard oil (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2004).

Sure it was only one study and even they acknowledged the need for more research — but that didn’t stop Ascherio-Willett from recommending the switch in cooking oils.

Red meat might disappear, too.

Ascherio-Willett reported a 63 percent increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes associated with iron intake from red meat (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jan. 2004). They didn’t bother to verify how much iron from red meat any of the study subjects consumed and, therefore, don’t actually have a firm basis for linking red meat consumption with the disease – but what the heck, they don’t really know the quantity of trans fats consumed by any of those study subjects either.

It’s not looking good for dairy products either. Ascherio-Willett reported in the Annals of Neurology (Dec. 2002) that consumption of dairy products was associated with an 80 percent increase in the risk of Parkinson’s Disease among men. Although they concluded at the time that the finding needed further evaluation, why should the Board wait for more research? That could take forever. If the inconsistent and contradictory trans fats research doesn’t require further evaluation, I can’t imagine why it would be necessary for dairy products.

Regular (sugar-sweetened) soft drinks ought to be history as well. Willett linked them with weight gain and diabetes in women (Journal of the American Medical Association, Aug. 25, 2004). It didn’t even matter that the same study also inexplicably linked diet soft drinks with a similar risk of diabetes.

It’s really odd that when their research inadvertently debunks itself and other food myths, almost no one learns of it. And that’s true for their trans fats research, as well.

The Board’s notice of its decision to ban trans fats tries to bolster its case by playing on popular misconceptions about saturated fat. The notice states that, “trans fat appears even worse than saturated fat.” The Board apparently isn’t familiar with the several Ascherio-Willett studies that fail to link saturated fat with heart disease and stroke.

The public’s 30-year long fear of saturated fat and the Board’s statement is, in fact, without a scientific basis. It’s simply astounding that the Board can get away with exploiting one debunked myth to help propagate another.

Just to show that not all the Ascherio-Willett research is about simply banning foods – after all, it is possible that at some point the public will tire of being nannied – the Board may want to consider requiring restaurant patrons to order caffeinated coffee with every meal. One Ascherio-Willett study reported that the risk of type 2 diabetes was reduced by a statistically significant 54 percent among men who consumed 6 or more cups of coffee per day (Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan. 6, 2004).

The Board might also want to mandate the daily consumption of pizza by men. Ascherio-Willett reported that men who consume more than 10 servings of pizza per week reduce their risk of prostate cancer by one-third (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Dec. 1995).

It’s not that either coffee or pizza is a proven “health” food – far from it – but the Board should consider their great distraction potential. Just as the ancient Roman emperors distracted citizens with bread and circuses while taking away their freedoms, the Board could easily distract New Yorkers with coffee and pizza as it dismantles consumer choice in restaurants bit by bit.

Come to think of it, why is the Board’s trans fats ban limited to restaurants? What about grocery stores and convenience shops? If trans fats are so bad, why should you be able to purchase food in a store that is too dangerous to be served in a restaurant?

The Board’s trans fats ban has dramatically lowered the bar for scientific proof. It’s such a sad spectacle that the Board of Health ought to be renamed the Bored of Science.