Health

November 11, 2013

Trans fat doesn’t stir much ’nanny state’ debate

WASHINGTON — They are among our most personal daily decisions: what to eat or drink. Maybe what to inhale.

Now that the government’s banning trans fat, does that mean it’s revving up to take away our choice to consume all sorts of other unhealthy stuff?

What about salt? Soda? Cigarettes?

Nah.

In the tug-of-war between public health and personal freedom, the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to ban trans fats barely rates a ripple.

Hardly anyone defends the icky-sounding artificial ingredient anymore, two decades after health activists began warning Americans that it was clogging their arteries and causing heart attacks.

New York, Philadelphia, a few other localities and the state of California already have banned trans fat from restaurant food.

McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC dropped it from their french fries, nachos and chicken years ago.

The companies that fill grocery shelves say they already have reduced their use of trans fat by nearly three-fourths since 2005.

Growers are promoting new soybean oils that they say will eliminate, within a few years, the need for partial hydrogenation, the process that creates trans fats still used to enhance the texture of some pie crusts, cookies and margarine.

Mostly, Americans’ palates have moved on, and so have their arguments over what’s sensible health policy and what amounts to a “nanny state” run amok.

When they aren’t feuding over President Barack Obama’s health care law, state politicians are busy weighing the wisdom of legalizing marijuana. Already 20 states and the District of Columbia have authorized it for medicinal use. Voters in Colorado and Washington state approved smoking pot just for fun.

The FDA is taking heat for delays in coming out with new rules on regular-old tobacco cigarettes under a law passed in 2009. There are the new e-cigarettes to worry about, too. More than 20 states have banned stores from selling electronic cigarettes to minors, but the federal government has yet to take them on.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to stop restaurants from selling sodas larger than 16 ounces, and the federal government’s efforts to impose healthier lunches on school kids are causing more of an uproar than the trans fat ban.

Still, Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, says a national trans fat ban is “a big deal.” After all, the FDA estimates it will prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year.

Levi doesn’t see it as evidence that federal regulators are suddenly on a roll, however.

“There are other areas where regulation is sort of stuck — everything from nutrition labeling to food safety to the tobacco regulations that have not seen the light of day,” Levi said.

Talk of new government regulation typically stirs up libertarians and conservatives. Yet the trans fat ban hasn’t provoked much beefing.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh groused that bureaucrats shouldn’t regulate what people eat because it’s “none of their business” and research on nutrition keeps changing. After all, sticks of margarine made with trans fats used to be recommended as a healthier alternative to butter.

Heritage Foundation research fellow Daren Bakst, who specializes in agriculture issues, blogged that the FDA is “ignoring the most important issue: the freedom of Americans.”

A few fans of ready-to-spread cake frostings and microwave popcorn that still contain trans fat griped via Twitter.

They don’t have to worry immediately.

The FDA must consider comments from the food industry and the public before it comes up with a timeline for phasing out trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils. It could take years to get them off the market.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, has been warning about the dangers since the early 1990s. Advocacy by the center helped persuade the government to add trans fat to nutrition labels beginning in 2006.

That created consumer pressure on food companies to find tasty ways to replace partially hydrogenated oil with less harmful fats. The companies’ success helped clear the way for the government to consider a trans fat ban, he said.

“It’s a little bit of an exception, in that it’s so harmful and it was so widely used,” Jacobson said, “and there are substitutes so that people can’t tell the difference when it’s removed.”

Next on Jacobson’s wish list is something that would be much harder for industry and the FDA to accomplish: reducing the salt in processed foods.

“There are estimates that it’s causing around 100,000 deaths prematurely every year in this country,” he said. “That is just huge.”

———

Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ConnieCass

 

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