The Obama administration's Food and Drug Administration today announced a near-ban, in the making since 2013, on the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable fats ("trans fats") in American food manufacturing. Specifically, the FDA is knocking trans fats off the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. This is a big deal and here are some reasons why:
- It's frank paternalism. Like high-calorie foods or alcoholic beverages, trans fats have marked risks when consumed in quantity over long periods, smaller risks in moderate and occasional use, and tiny risks when used in tiny quantities. The FDA intends to forbid the taking of even tiny risks, no matter how well disclosed.
- The public doesn't agree. A 2013 Reason-RUPE poll found majorities of all political groups felt consumers should be left free to choose on trans fats. Even in heavily governed places like New York City and California, where the political class bulldozed through restaurant bans some years back, there was plenty of resentment.
- The public is also perfectly capable of recognizing and acting on nutritional advances on its own. Trans fats have gone out of style and consumption has dropped by 85 percent as consumers have shunned them. But while many products have been reformulated to omit trans fats, their versatile qualities still give them an edge in such specialty applications as frozen pizza crusts, microwave popcorn, and the sprinkles used atop cupcakes and ice cream. Food companies tried to negotiate to keep some of these uses available, especially in small quantities, but apparently mostly failed.
- Government doesn't always know best, nor do its friends in "public health." The story has often been told of how dietary reformers touted trans fats from the 1950s onward as a safer alternative to animal fats and butter. Public health activists and various levels of government hectored consumers and restaurants to embrace the new substitutes. We now know this was a bad idea: trans fats appear worse for cardiovascular health than what they replaced. And the ingredients that will replace minor uses of trans fats -- tropical palm oil is one -- have problems of their own.
- Even if you never plan to consume a smidgen of trans fat ever again, note well: many public health advocates are itching for the FDA to limit allowable amounts of salt, sugar, caffeine, and so forth in food products. Many see this as their big pilot project and test case. But when it winds up in court, don't be surprised if some courtroom spectators show up wearing buttons with the old Sixties slogan: Keep Your Laws Off My Body.