Politics & Policy

Morbidly Obtuse

NYC's planned trans-fat ban is being fed by a diet of nonsense.

On October 30, a diverse collection of New Yorkers — and nutrition activists from outside New York — gathered at the city health department to offer their views on the proposed  ban on trans-fats in restaurant fare. Hundreds of others poured into the hearing room just to learn if it’s really true that a killer is on the loose in Big Apple eateries.

Emotions ran high as witness after witness characterized trans-fats in French fries, doughnuts, and spreads as an imminent threat to health. “Trans-fats kill babies!” intoned councilman Peter Vallone during a press conference.

At a mid-day “trans-fat-free rally,” activists celebrated in the park. Trans-fat phobia was rampant, and the facts were largely irrelevant.

And indeed, the facts tell a different story than the horror narrative. That is why my organization — the American Council on Science and Health — offered testimony opposing the ban. Why? Because it will not make New Yorkers healthier. Indeed, such a move may actually contribute to the toll of premature death by diverting our attention from the real causes of heart disease.

High levels of dietary trans-fats (TFAs), derived primarily from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, can raise levels of LDL, the so-called “bad cholesterol.” But TFAs are only one of several dietary factors that affect blood lipids and, more importantly, serum cholesterol is only one of several factors that may influence the risk of heart disease. Cigarette smoking and high blood pressure, as well as diabetes and obesity, contribute far more to heart disease than any specific dietary factor.

Any practicing physician who has treated patients with elevated cholesterol levels will tell you that even the strictest low-fat diets often result in only modest cholesterol reduction. So how could we expect significant effects on LDL cholesterol from banishing levels of just one type of fat — one that represents only about 2 percent of our total daily calorie intake, and which does not contribute more calories than other types of fat? Those individuals with unhealthy lipid levels, of course, should choose polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. It’s saturated fats, not trans-fats, that they should be concerned about — because it’s saturated fats that represent over 10 percent, maybe 15 percent of calories. Individuals struggling with excess lipids need to discuss with their physicians the option of cholesterol-lowering drugs; but for most of us, this is unnecessary. Given the scientific facts, then, why is there such an uproar about TFAs? First, in recent years, public health authorities have increasingly turned to regulation to combat chronic disease in a fashion similar to using regulation to fight infectious disease — requiring water chlorination, inoculations, and so forth. An example is the City Health Department’s decision in January to make diabetes a reportable disease — in the same way that sexually transmitted diseases are reportable. The problem is that government intervention for chronic diseases, which are primarily linked to lifestyle factors, is intrusive and simply will not work. By calling for a ban on TFAs on city menus, the public-health establishment is responding as if TFAs were an imminent health threat — like listeria in deli meats. They are not.

Second, as the hyperbole about TFAs has escalated — with a New York Times columnist recently opining that TFAs in Girl Scout cookies have killed more Americans than al Qaeda — physicians and scientists have largely remained mute on the topic. Silence is interpreted as agreement — and the momentum for the ban builds.

Third, the food industry has turned the fear of TFAs into a brilliant marketing strategy — trumpeting the “No Trans-Fats” claim on labels.  Unsuspecting customers will conclude from the absence of TFAs that products are healthier — and maybe even think they are reduced in calories — when in fact there are no health benefits. All fats, saturated or not, contain nine calories per gram. There are no caloric savings from replacing TFAs with other fats. On October 30, Kentucky Fried Chicken decided to cash in on the trans-fat mania, announcing — while the hearings were in process — that it was phasing out all use of the much-maligned substances. KFC practically claimed that their new line of products, once TFA-free, would be eligible for the Health Food Hall of Fame.

What will replace the allegedly malicious TFAs? In the late 1980s, the Ralph Nader–inspired Center for Science in the Public Interest fomented a frenzy about the beef tallow that fast-food restaurants used to fry potatoes because it contains cholesterol-raising saturated fats — and demanded that they stop it. And what did CSPI recommend to take its place? Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils with TFAs. Now the wheel has turned and CSPI is outraged over TFAs.

We have lost perspective on the important threats to New Yorkers’ health: smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol use, and more. And if we ban trans-fats, we move one step closer to endorsing the principle that government should determine what we eat and how we should live — even when the data and expected benefits are skimpy.

 – Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.