American consumers already have largely phased out trans fat from the food supply. With growing evidence about the dangers of such products, the public has reduced its consumption of trans fat by 85 percent over the past decade — thanks to government- mandated labeling and public awareness.
That remaining 15 percent is too high, however, meaning that the Food and Drug Administration’s announcement of a three-year phase-out of trans fat is most welcome. Experts say the move will save lives, as trans fat boosts “bad” cholesterol, reduces “good” cholesterol, and contributes to heart disease — the nation’s leading cause of death. As Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said: “It’s probably the single-most important change in our food supply. This action alone will save many thousands of lives each year.”
Trans fat is created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to improve the texture or shelf life of products, and it is most common in frostings, pie crusts, biscuits, microwave popcorn, coffee creamer, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, vegetable shortening and stick margarine. It long was thought to have no ill health effects, but beginning in the 1970s, a slew of research determined otherwise. By 2003, the FDA required labeling on all foods made with trans fat, and since then jurisdictions such as New York City and California have banned its use in restaurants.
Given all that, the practical implications of the decision announced Tuesday will be somewhat negligible, as the public already was eschewing trans fat. The philosophical implications, however, could be more interesting, as some have argued that the federal government is being overprotective in issuing the ban — rather than providing consumers with information and then allowing those consumers to make their own decisions. Such free-market arguments, however, fall flat. Trans fat should be banned for the same reason that lead is banned from paint, or asbestos is banned from buildings, or Red Dye No. 2 is banned from foods. Sometimes, the danger that cannot be seen is the most potent.
Such is the case with trans fat. As reporter Roberto A. Ferdman wrote in The Washington Post: “For more than a century, trans fat has been an essential part of the U.S. food system. Almost anything that was fried or baked had it. Foods that were made with trans fat tasted better, and perhaps even more importantly, lasted longer. No one worried, because no one knew how dangerous that was.”
Now, trans fat is considered an artery-clogging menace, and both the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences have determined that there is no safe level of consumption. The FDA will phase in the ban over three years, giving food manufacturers time to develop alternatives to trans fat in their products. Producers also will be allowed to petition the agency for exceptions to the ban, but officials should be skeptical of such requests. Furthermore, consumers should examine nutrition labels as producers replace trans fat with butter, lard or other alternatives that present their own health dangers.
With our ever-increasing understanding of food and its impact upon health, the marketplace can present an overwhelming and often confusing wealth of information. But the reasoning behind a ban of trans fat is fairly simplistic: The FDA estimates that the move eventually will prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths per year. That, in itself, is a compelling argument in favor of a ban.