Proposed trans fat ban based on a lot of junk science

Dear Chicago Restaurantgoer: Ald. Ed Burke (14th) proposed last July that the Chicago City Council ban restaurants from serving foods made with vegetable oils containing trans fats. The proposal follows New York City’s new ban on trans fats. The alarm is directly traceable to "research" by Harvard University’s Alberto Ascherio and Walter Willett, the promoters-in-chief of trans fat fear.

You might consider the implications of the council dictating what you may eat based on the sort of "research" published by the team known as Ascherio-Willett. So let’s examine the potential consequences of relying on their other research that is similar in nature and quality to their trans fats work.

Also on the hit list

  • Restaurants could be banned from serving potatoes, peas, peanuts, beans, lentils, orange juice and grapefruit juice. Ascherio-Willett once reported increased heart disease risk among consumers of these foods (Annals of Internal Medicine, June 2001). Although none of the reported correlations was statistically meaningful — indicating that they were probably just chance occurrences — similar shortcomings in Ascherio-Willett trans fat research don’t seem to matter to Burke.
  • Indian restaurants could be banned from cooking with sunflower oil. Ascherio-Willett once found that consumers of Indian food cooked in sunflower oil were three 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 Ascherio-Willet acknowledged the need for more research, but they nevertheless recommended a cooking oil switch.
  • Red meat might disappear. Ascherio-Willett reported a 63 percent increase in type 2 diabetes risk associated with iron intake from red meat (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January 2004). While they didn’t bother to verify how much red meat any of the study subjects consumed, and therefore don’t actually have a scientific basis for linking meat-eating with diabetes — what the heck, they don’t really know the quantity of trans fats consumed by any of those study subjects, either.
  • And it’s not looking good for dairy products. Ascherio-Willett correlated dairy products with an 80 percent increase in Parkinson’s Disease in men (Annals of Neurology, December 2002). Although they concluded more research was needed, why wait? That could take forever. If the inconsistent and contradictory trans fats research doesn’t require further evaluation, why would the research for dairy products?
  • Regular 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 diabetes risk.

New York tried to bolster it case for banning trans fats by playing on popular misconceptions about saturated fat. Its ban notice states that, "Trans fat appears even worse than saturated fat."

As it turns out, the public’s 30-year-long fear of saturated fat has no scientific basis. It’s appalling that the use of the now-debunked saturated myth helped propagate the new trans fat myth.

Coffee and pizza as remedies

Since not all Ascherio-Willett research is about banning foods — I suppose even they realize that at some point the public will tire of being denied choice — Burke might want to consider requiring restaurant patrons to order caffeinated coffee. One Ascherio-Willett study reported that drinking six-plus cups of coffee per day reduced type 2 diabetes risk in men by a statistically significant 54 percent (Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan. 6, 2004).

Daily consumption of pizza by men could also be required. Ascherio-Willett reported that consuming 10 or more servings of pizza per week reduced their risk of prostate cancer by one-third (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, December 1995).

It’s not that Ascherio-Willett have proven that coffee or pizza prevent disease — far from it — but Burke might appreciate their distraction potential. Ancient Roman emperors distracted citizens with bread and circuses while taking away their freedoms. The City Council could similarly distract Chicagoans with mandatory coffee and pizza for everyone as it dismantles consumer food choice.

Finally, why is Burke’s proposed trans fat ban limited to restaurants? What about grocery stores and convenience shops? If trans fats are so bad, why should anyone be able to purchase food in a store that is too dangerous to be served in a restaurant?

Maybe someone should ask Ald. Burke if he really wants to hitch his career to the junk science bandwagon.