Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

i-764463d2792b2bdb6a7745a5ca6697a2-label.gif I came across an interesting topic on the Irascible Professor’s blog: whether or not banning harmful food product such as trans-fat infringes upon a person’s right to eat whatever they want, healthy or otherwise. This question is in response to libertarian John Stossel’s article “What Will They Ban Next?” where Stossel opines that citizens’ eating habits should not be monitored by the government. Stossel says trans fat gives French fries “that texture I like” and since heart disease in America is declining, “So, if they’re [trans fat] killing us, they’re not doing a very good job.” Booooo.

He goes on:

But that’s not the point. In a free society the issue is: Who decides what I eat, the government or me? It’s not as though information about trans fats is hard to come by. Scaremongers like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are all too happy to tell you about the dangers, and they have no trouble getting their declarations of doom on television and into newspapers.

(Continued below the fold……….)


I’ve posted a bit about trans fat over at the old Retrospectacle to the tune of this:

Trans fat is a partially hydrogenated oil, and changes the chemical structure of an otherwise not-as-unhealthy fat to a very unhealthy fat. Partial hydrogenation increases the shelf life of packaged foods and has the ability of keeping what *should* be liquids at room temperature, solids (think that fluffy creme in Twinkies or the icing in Oreos). Partially hydrogenated oils are also much less expensive than alternatives like butter and olive oil, and have been largely phased out outside the US. This process is now happening in the US as well. Trans fat behaves like saturated fat by raising the level of low-density lipoprotein in the blood (LDL or “bad cholesterol”) which increases the risk of heart disease. It has the additional effect of decreasing levels of high-density lipoprotein, the “good” lipoprotein which helps remove cholesterol from arteries. This makes trans fats even WORSE than saturated fats like butter.

Now Stossel’s argument is flawed due to the fact that choice should involve reasonable limits as well as informed consent. There are perhaps some people out there who would like to choose a tall glass of liquid Mercury in the morning instead of a latte. This is a choice that causes a reasonable expectation for serious harm, and therefore should not be a choice at all. Perhaps a person might wish to pump gasoline into 2 liter bottles instead of their gas task, is it impinging upon their freedom that they can’t? And as for the issue of informed consent, the whole issue of trans fat being bad for you has only been in the public consciousness for about one year (since food manufacturers were required to list it). This is despite trans fat being in existence for about 100 years. Talk to a health professional, who has experience with coronary disease I would say they are informed. But in the same way that a normal person would not be able to properly weigh the consequences of drinking a glass of mercury (let’s imagine it tasted divine), nor would they be able to properly weigh how “bad” trans fat is for you. That the entire point of the FDA. What if salmonella-infested meat tasted great?

Stossel goes on:

The Center for Consumer Freedom is running ads saying: “Now that New York has banned cooking oils with trans fat (the same substance as margarine) … it opens the door to banning so much more! Using the same logic, let’s get rid of New York style pizza (seriously, do you need all that cheese?), beef hot dogs (tofu dogs almost taste the same), corned beef (turkey breast is much leaner). … ”

Yes, I know the center’s sponsors include restaurants and food companies, but still, it has a good point.

The issue here is that the restaurant industry is bitching, not because they give a damn about your personal freedom (You really think tipping is option? What about those forced gratuities on parties more than 6?) but because trans fat is CHEAP. As in dirt cheap compared to the alternatives. So the banning of this cheap fat cuts into their bottom line as they have to find more expensive (yet far, far healthier) substitutes.

More info here: http://www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/transfat/

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    There are perhaps some people out there who would like to choose a tall glass of liquid Mercury in the morning instead of a latte. This is a choice that causes a reasonable expectation for serious harm, and therefore should not be a choice at all.

    Why not? I think that’s AWESOME. I can add it to my list of ways to kill yourself like a man.

    Unfortunately I also need a manly reason for doing so, but I guess being sufficiently pissed is enough of a rationale for self-inflicted death.

  2. #2 writerdddd
    January 4, 2007

    Stossel has become a corporate kiss-ass, so this is not surprising at all.

  3. #3 Peter
    January 4, 2007

    I think people should be allowed to eat trans fats (or even Mercury) as long as they pay much higher insurance premiums and the additional medical costs. Think of it as evolution in action. The stupidity gene has consequences.

  4. #4 qetzal
    January 4, 2007

    I don’t mean to give offense, but your arguments aren’t very good here.

    There are perhaps some people out there who would like to choose a tall glass of liquid Mercury in the morning instead of a latte. This is a choice that causes a reasonable expectation for serious harm, and therefore should not be a choice at all.

    Not a useful analogy. Consuming small amounts of trans fat is not going to be seriously harmful. Consuming even small amounts of mercury would be. Not to mention that the mercury would pose a risk to others and to the environment when it was excreted. On top of which, I doubt drinking mercury is strictly illegal (except perhaps under attempted suicide laws).

    Perhaps a person might wish to pump gasoline into 2 liter bottles instead of their gas task, is it impinging upon their freedom that they can’t?

    An even worse analogy. Pumping gas into 2 liter bottles is dangerous to others, not just the pumper. It’s a fire and explosion hazard. Eating trans fat is not a significant danger to anyone but the consumer.

    The issue here is that the restaurant industry is bitching, not because they give a damn about your personal freedom (You really think tipping is option? What about those forced gratuities on parties more than 6?) but because trans fat is CHEAP. As in dirt cheap compared to the alternatives. So the banning of this cheap fat cuts into their bottom line as they have to find more expensive (yet far, far healthier) substitutes.

    And how do you think they will make up for those higher costs? Higher prices, of course. Which the consumer has no choice but to pay (unless they stop eating at restaurants). Besides, why shouldn’t restaurant owners complain if they feel they’re being unfairly forced to increase expenses?

    Now Stossel’s argument is flawed due to the fact that choice should involve reasonable limits as well as informed consent.

    Yes, but except in unusual cases, I believe such limits should generally be in place to prevent harm to people other than those making the choice. I don’t see why that’s necessary in this case. Why isn’t it sufficient to require warning notices on the menu? Warning – this restaurant uses trans fats in its foods. Consumption of trans fat has been shown to significant increase the risk of heart disease. That would provide informed consent, which I strongly agree with, while still allowing choice. Restaurants would be free to advertise no trans fats in their food, and customers would be free to favor those restarants, even if prices were higher.

    OTOH, if there’s really a clear-cut argument that trans fats are always bad in even small amounts, how can you justify banning them only in restaurants? They shouldn’t be sold at all. NY (and the US, I suppose) should ban all food containing trans fat, including food in supermarkets, vending machines, etc.

    Sorry, but I agree with Stossel – this is a bad law.

  5. #5 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    Wouldn’t a better law be to manage it like a public health problem, like hefty taxes a la tobacco and alcohol?

    I think an outright ban is overdoing it. Even if it is a particularly dangerous food additive, I’d hate to think of where such a law would end. I have a considerable amount of non-safe (to myself at least) habits that I’d hate to see banned.

  6. #6 Shelley
    January 4, 2007

    I think people should be allowed to eat trans fats (or even Mercury) as long as they pay much higher insurance premiums and the additional medical costs.

    Unfortunately our health care system isn’t set up that way. Health people pay more to cover those that arent, the insured pay for the uninsured.

    Wouldn’t a better law be to manage it like a public health problem, like hefty taxes a la tobacco and alcohol?
    Perhaps, but what do you tax? You go to a resturant, how do you know that what you are getting is fried in canola rather than transfat? The problem seems to be transparency. You *know* you are buying a pack of unhealthy cigs when you buy a pack of cigs. But when you buy a hamburger, or even some salad dressing at a cafe, how do you know? I do agree with you though that if a good way to tax it could be found, likely the problem would take care of itself. Its certainly a better idea than doing nothing at all.

    OTOH, if there’s really a clear-cut argument that trans fats are always bad in even small amounts, how can you justify banning them only in restaurants? They shouldn’t be sold at all. NY (and the US, I suppose) should ban all food containing trans fat, including food in supermarkets, vending machines, etc.
    Absolutely. I don’t think *just* banning them in resturants is where it should end, they shouldn’t exist at all in my book. I’m just examining this particular step in the process.

  7. #7 Shelley
    January 4, 2007

    Consuming small amounts of trans fat is not going to be seriously harmful. Consuming even small amounts of mercury would be.
    I agree its a rough analogy, but actually consuming small portions of trans-fat (which is what we do) over time is the exact problem. Certainly not at the same dosage level of mercury, but that wasn’t the point.

    Not to mention that the mercury would pose a risk to others and to the environment when it was excreted. On top of which, I doubt drinking mercury is strictly illegal (except perhaps under attempted suicide laws).
    Consuming trans fat isn’t illegal either. Its selling it in food for consumption which is illegal (in NY); selling mercury for consumption I’m sure is as well. Harken back to the ‘reasonable expectation of harm.

    And how do you think they will make up for those higher costs? Higher prices, of course. Which the consumer has no choice but to pay (unless they stop eating at restaurants). Besides, why shouldn’t restaurant owners complain if they feel they’re being unfairly forced to increase expenses?
    Resturants have the right and ability to complain whenever the mood moves them. However, when they do so at the expense of public health, it becomes downright ridiculous. Do you think car manufactuers loved the idea of putting seat belts in all their cars? I doubt it, and I expect they complained to most anyone who would listen, for awhile. Until that became really unpopular when seatbelts started saving lives. I expect the same situation will occur here.

    Eating trans fat is not a significant danger to anyone but the consumer.
    Unless you consider the impact on public health, hospital, and insurance costs. Let alone all the other nasty by-products of obesity like, for example, replacing our normal sized MRI machine with a much larger one to accomodate expanding waistlines. All for the low low price of $1 million +. Who do you think pays for that? Yeah, you. And although I hate to drag out the trite ‘what about the kids’ song and dance, its true that children are receiving much more trans fat in their diet than previous generations. Unfortunate, as that indicates that its the parents that are making the poor decisions which impact their kids.

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    Shelly,

    Restaurants are already subject to pretty stringent regulations for food safety in most places (outside of the U.S. it’s more so), I don’t see any reason why the use of trans-fats can’t be accounted for in the same way as, say, sanitation practices. I don’t think transparency is really all that difficult to achieve in this case.

  9. #9 Shelley
    January 4, 2007

    Ok, Tyler, but at the very least you’ll have to have age restrictions like alcohol and tobacco do. Alcohol and tobacco are legal because, while people know they are dangerous (and they are heavily taxed for it) we also assume that age age 18/21/whatever, they are old enough to know the impact and consequences. Can we have that for a menu item too? Hot fudge sundae without transfat–any age. Hot fudge sundae with trans fat– 18+. Funny thought. :)

  10. #10 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    Can we have that for a menu item too? Hot fudge sundae without transfat–any age. Hot fudge sundae with trans fat– 18+. Funny thought. :)

    Or perhaps some religiously motivated deterrent, like “There is a God, and he hates ice-cream. Don’t eat it.”

    But in all seriousness, I agree. There should be some sort of age restriction on something that is demonstrably a dangerous food additive. Such can eventually have the same “consciousness raising” effect that you alluded to earlier.

  11. #11 qetzal
    January 4, 2007

    Shelley, your points about public health care costs and effects on children (who are presumably too young to make informed choices) are better arguments. But they can be taken to extremes. Failure to exercise leads to all the same health problems you cite for trans fats. Does that justify compulsory exercise programs for all New Yorkers? Tanning booths increase the risk of skin cancers. Higher insurance costs for you and me. Should we ban them? What about downhill skiing? All those broken bones, the occasional death. Should people be allowed to choose to ski?

    My point is that just because something can be harmful and can impact public health, doesn’t automatically mean the government should get to ban it if they choose. On a case by case basis, it may well be appropriate. In this case, I don’t think it is. Not by a wide margin, IMO.

  12. #12 Scott Simmons
    January 4, 2007

    Donut store near my house now advertises ‘all products trans-fat free’. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a trans-fat free donut! :-) I think they still don’t qualify under my New Year’s diet. :-(

    No danger of trans-fats getting banned around here anytime soon–I’m in Texas. The more people it’s likely to kill, the more folks hereabouts will be in favor of it. Go figure.

  13. #13 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    My point is that just because something can be harmful and can impact public health, doesn’t automatically mean the government should get to ban it if they choose.

    No, but that isn’t the claim being made, as far as I can tell at least (it certainly isn’t mine). When the consumption of something presents significant non-divisible costs (externalities) then the public has a legitimate interest in controlling it to some extent. How it does so in a non-repressive way is a different matter. That is why I don’t think an outright ban is the way to go, but likely a policy of age restriction and hefty taxation.

  14. #14 MarkP
    January 4, 2007

    Shelley, if the concern is the “informed” part of “informed consent”, then why not just make it illegal to sell trans-fats in anything without it being stated as such, just like it’s illegal to sell cigarettes without the warning label? Sure it would be more difficult to do for trans-fats, because they are in more things. Good! It would serve as another good reason to stop selling and eating it in the first place, and a reminder that we’d all be better off with less of its tasty unhealthy goodness.

    As far as the insurance arguments, this actuary’s opinion is that it is a really, really, really bad idea to make any of these kinds of decisions based on the effects on insurance premiums. Yes, seat belts save lives. So do air bags. They also make insurance a lot more expensive. The bags themselves are expensive, and sad to say injured people are more costly than dead ones. There is also good data to suggest that having fewer smokers has caused health costs to actually go up, because now instead of kicking off at 58 with lung cancer, the ex-smokers are dying later and way more expensively, not to mention adding costs in between. If you argue that something should be banned (in part) because it makes our health costs go up, you might not like the implications if it turns out the opposite is true.

    These questions almost always seem to boil down to a personal value judgement between freedom, cost, quality of life, and lives saved. We can help each other get the logic and facts sharp in each category, but in the end it still comes down to what you personally value more. For me, the case can’t be made on this one to ban trans-fats. Cyanide I’ll ban. But then, I don’t think there should be seat belt laws either, even though I wear mine religiously, and I think you are an idiot if you don’t. I just need more of a reason than that. I’ve found trying to keep idiots from doing idiotic things is a full time job, so it’s not one I want to spend my tax dollars trying to do. It’s not like we have money for everything. [shrug]

  15. #15 Robster
    January 5, 2007

    You know, soured wine just isn’t as good now that we can’t add lead acetate to it to make it taste better. And without arsenic, I can’t get that pretty green in wallpaper anymore. And what are we to do when pale skin comes back in without arsenic and lead to lighten the skin? If only the government hadn’t butted in and outlawed those things.

    French fries aren’t health food, but there is no reason to make them even more unhealthful.

  16. #16 James
    January 5, 2007

    I agree with Stossels view point that government should not regulate matters such as these.
    Besides the government isn’t thinking of protecting the people out of the notion of greater good. It’s more like protecting your interests. With cost of healthcare on the rise, civil cases, it would be pruent to ensure that the tax-paying public live as long as possible so they might recieve a thorough fleecing.

    Government protecting people? Shouldn’t the people protect the government? Whatever happened to that notion… don’t tell me democracy committed suicide.

    In your example of liquid mercury.. If someone wants to drink a glass of mercury… I think they should have the choice to do so. Those are a pair of genes I could use out of the pool.

    why is trans-fats being banned but not tobacco?
    Why not just raise the price of a box a twinkies to 10 dollars a pack. ;)

  17. #17 zach wilson
    January 5, 2007

    I dont have alot of time to write this, but didnt something similar happen with MSG in the 80s? I was a kid then, but I remember my parents not buying chinese food that had MSG in it – and most chinese places advertise as being MSG free?

    point is, make every restaurant declare that they’ve got this shit in their food, regardless of legality. No matter who you are, I think everyone agrees that transparency is a good thing, even if you have to legislate it.

    Also what’s with this “people should be allowed to drink mercury” argument? Why not say arsenic or Hydrochloric Acid? That’s just as absurd an argument.

    And no one’s saying that you can’t drink mercury or eat trans fats. They’re just making it harder for you to get to them. A healthy population is a tax paying population.

  18. #18 Roy
    January 5, 2007

    I find the comments decrying the ban sort of amusing. Trans fats are an additive. To hear people talk, you’d think that people were huge fans of a heaping plate of transfat.
    “I can’t wait to go to Applebees to get a plate of deep fried transfat! Yum!”

    If someone wants to get transfats, this law isn’t stopping them. What it is stopping is the food-service industry from using a chemical additive in foods that has proven links to myriad health hazards. The big benefit of transfats are that they’re cheap- there are other, far, far, less dangerous oils and additives that can be used to give food exactly the same taste and texture.

    It’s no different from when any other dangerous food additive is restricted or outright banned. Should companies still be allowed to use Agene in food? Or safrole? Or monochloroacetic acid? Sudan 1? Violet 1? Yellow 1 and 2?

    If you have some bizarre desire to eat transfats- knock yourself out. They’re cheap enough to purchase, I’m sure you can get them, and slather them all over your baked potato or your chicken-fried steak if that’s your thing, just like if you want to drink a glass of mercury, you can do so. You just can’t do so at a restaurant (in New York).

    Saying “Well, if this is a problem, why not go after X, Y, or Z” is nothing more than a distraction. There are already people who do want tobacco banned. Tabacco isn’t a food additive. Tabacco is already heavily restricted. etc, etc.
    And saying “Well, why not go after all foods, then?” isn’t an argument against the ban either. Perhaps they thought they’d start with restaurants, which are local, and move towards food producers, many of whom are national or international. Maybe they wanted to start small and work out. Maybe they were more concerned with restaurants. Who knows?

    Finally, saying “well, what might they ban next” is a slippery slope argument, and it says nothing about whether or not the ban is a good idea. Even if I agree that banning, say, liquor would be stupid (which I do), that doesn’t have anything to do with whether banning tranfats is a good idea. It’s possible that some politician may see this ban as a stepping stone towards banning all kinds of other things, but it doesn’t seem likely, and says nothing about the ban in question. It’s entirely possible to support banning a harmful chemical additive in food without supporting a ban on liquor or smoking, or any other “fun” but potentially dangerous product or activity.

  19. #19 Ktesibios
    January 5, 2007

    The real question here is “should restaurants be permitted to feed their customers an additive which is known to cause health problems without their knowledge?”

    The italicized part is what Stossel and the astroturf “consumer freedom” front want to distract attention from.

    Here in L.A., if I go to a restaurant I know something about the quality of their sanitation and food handling practices, because the grade they received on their last inspection is displayed right outside the door. This accomplishes two things- it informs the customer that (hopefully) the restaurant is following proper food safety practice, and it gives the restaurant an incentive to do things right, because they know that displaying that blue “A” is more attractive to the customer than a lower grade.

    Similarly, if restaurants can’t conceal their use of unhealthy additives by the simple expedient of telling you nothing about their ingredients, but instead have to warn the public about their poor practices, they will have a strong incentive to prepare safer and healthier food.

    The industry should not be permitted to conceal the biochemical hazards of their products any more than they should be permitted to conceal unsafe food storage, handling and preparation procedures. Compulsory disclosure might achieve the goal of safeguarding the public health as well as would a ban.

    But I’ll bet you that mouthpieces-for-moneyed-interests like Stossel won’t accept that- or any regulation that gets in the way of the sacred right of corporations to do exactly as they please in anything- any more than they’ll accept a ban.

  20. #20 L
    January 8, 2007

    Here’s another from Stossel’s collection of “brilliant tripe”:

    http://www.townhall.com/columnists/JohnStossel/2006/10/04/hooray_for_ddts_life-saving_comeback

    “After more than 30 years and tens of millions dead — mostly children — the World Health Organization (WHO) has ended its ban on DDT.” — John Stossel

    WHO never banned DDT, so the idea that “a ban on DDT killed millions” is total nonsense.

  21. #21 Lab Lemming
    January 10, 2007

    A point, and a question:
    Firstly, the point. I blame rabbis and vegetarians for the trans-fat epidemic. This is because most partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is a synthetic replacement for natural lard, and opposition to pig consumption by both groups mentioned above is one reason that manufacturers have replaced lard witha kosher, vegetarian, but toxic chemical.

    Secondly, has anyone studied how much vegetable oil gets partially hydrogenated by home cooking? If people frying their chickens and sauteing their muishrooms at too high a temperature end up dosing themselves with hundreds of krispy kremes* of trans-fat each week, then attacking commercial properties is fairly silly.

    More research is needed.

    *The krispy kreme is the SI unit for measuring trans fatty acids.

  22. #22 sxdz
    February 18, 2007

    What goes better with coffee than donuts? But not those regular deep fried fattening puffs of dough we all have know but..the donuts of celebrities like Tori Spelling, and Fergie of the black eyed peas…These magical great tasting donuts are LOW FAT yes i said LOW FAT!!!!
    and they taste amazing,i love the Boston Cream its crazy good!

    I ordered mine online just Google

    holey donuts

    Its like donut heaven!

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!