Friday, December 08, 2006

Banning Fat

New York City recently decided to ban the use of trans fats by restaurants in the city. While some have equated this move with the smoking bans being passed around the country, I think that the issue deserves individual treatment.

While the lay person may cite saturated facts as the most dangerous type of fat, the fact is that trans fats are actually more dangerous. Trans fats, commonly found in such foods as margarine, Crisco, potato chips, peanut butter, etc., are made by passing hydrogen through the fact. As a result, the fat can stay in a solid state at room temperature. As one doctor described the effect of the process: "It's not good for body to digest; it's like eating plastic." The FDA even concluded that the recommended daily allowance of trans fats is 0 grams (for comparison, the RDA of saturated fats is around 20 grams). As a result of this, I have avoided trans fats since high school and feel that this has helped improve my health.

Now, the same dangerous side effects can be said of smoking (which I am against banning). However, the case for a ban of trans fats is stronger for three reasons: (1) people unknowingly ingest trans fats; (2) people are not privy to the health problems related to the trans fats; and (3) there are already alternative fats available that do not significantly affect the taste of the food (albeit with a slightly higher cost due to their lower availability at this time). With smoking, everyone is aware of the health issues and individuals consciously make the decision to smoke. At restaurants, trans fats are often used without the customers knowledge. Even if one knows that they are used, few people know about the health concerns related to their ingestion.

While I think that the personal and social cost of trans fats are high and that they ought not to be eaten, I think an all-out ban is too much at this point. One of the reasons that trans fats are used is because they are cheaper and, for the time being, more readily available than comparable fats. By banning their use, the government is forcing a cost on the restaurant. In addition, many companies have complained that transitioning to a substitute fat has been difficult. The individual no longer has the option to make a choice of being cheap food now and paying for it down the road with higher health costs. The problem with the current situation is that individuals are not making informed decisions because they are not aware of the presence of trans fats in their foods. This would be ameliorated by a labeling requirement. Restaurants would be given the option to continue to use trans fats so long as they notified the customers.

The FDA imposed a labeling requirement on groceries that went into effect January 1, 2006. Now, products must state the quantity of trans fats contained in them. While the regulation has its flaws (products can state "0g trans fat" or "trans fat free" even though they contain small amounts of trans fat per serving), it has served to entice companies reduce and eliminate trans fats in their products. For instance, a couple of years ago, few potato chips were made without trans fats. Now many brands are trans fat free. Labeling has also helped raise public awareness of the issue. While the case is stronger for a ban, requiring restaurants to merely notify customers of the presence of trans fats would help serve the same ends as a total ban without the extra costs imposed on business and individual freedom. If someone wants a Big Mac soaked in trans fats, let them have it. It should be their choice so long as they know whats in it.

1 comment:

Cato said...

I'm against both bans, but at least the smoking ban has the merit that it cuts down on second hand smoke in bars and restaurants. There is no second hand fat, so the fat-eaters are only hurting themselves.