June 26, 2015

Trans Fat Ban Just a Swing in the Dark

Richard A. Williams

Senior Affiliated Scholar

When in doubt, throw it out. That philosophy seems to be what’s driving the FDA’s policy on trans fatty acids, and, in all likelihood, it’s just wrong. Let’s untangle what has transpired and see why.

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When in doubt, throw it out. That philosophy seems to be what’s driving the FDA’s policy on trans fatty acids, and, in all likelihood, it’s just wrong. Let’s untangle what has transpired and see why.

First, the FDA probably should have left a big win alone. When the FDA required trans fatty acids to appear on the Nutrition Facts Panel, the food industry reacted immediately – those who could find substitute fats did so, which caused consumption to drop by 80 percent. At the previous levels, there was pretty good evidence that consumption of trans fatty acids at high levels (4 grams) was associated with heart disease.

But what about current consumption at lower levels? The evidence is missing. One might wonder: If it’s bad for you in larger amounts, why isn’t it bad for you in smaller amounts? Well, water is obviously good for you in small amounts, but if you drink too much too quickly, you die.

It turns out that most of the things we eat are like that. Small amounts either pass harmlessly through your body or are good for you. Eat too much, too quickly, and it’s bad or lethal. Drugs are the same way: They may cure you in small amounts but kill you if you take too many of them. Radiation is also the same way; a lot will give you cancer or kill you, but a little bit (it turns out) is good for you. Even some very nasty things like dioxin and arsenic can be good for you at extremely low levels. Salt is necessary for life, but consuming too much is unhealthy.

Even though trans fatty acids likely follow the same pattern – being benign or helpful at low levels – we don’t know that, and we don’t know at what level that may be.

So, shouldn’t we just get rid of it? Probably not, for a couple of reasons.

First, it sets a bad precedent. It takes a nutrition issue and turns it into a safety issue. That’s what the Generally Recognized as Safe or GRAS law is about: safety. If we start doing that for other ingredients – particularly when we don’t have the science to back it up – we are opening up a huge can of worms. Apparently, there are lawyers out there who see this kind of thing as a golden opportunity.

The other reason goes back to missing science. What’s going to take the place of trans fatty acids when you ban it? The FDA doesn’t know, but it moved ahead anyway.

Ironically, this is how we got into this particular mess in the first place.

When food activists became concerned about saturated fat in animal fats in the 1970s, the industry went to vegetable oil but, to make it work, they had to use the hydrogenated variety. No one knew that’s what they were going to do, and no one tried to find out. The same people pushed the FDA to enact the current policy, and they don’t know what the replacement will be either. The good news is that after the labeling came out, the industry generally found better fats to replace trans. It’s not clear what the remaining firms are going to do since, if they could have easily replaced trans, they already would have. Will the replacement be better or worse? No one knows.

This is regulating in the dark. We don’t know if there are levels of trans fatty acids that are benign or perhaps even good for you – but the odds are that they exist. We don’t know what’s going to replace trans fatty acids. We don’t know how many wasteful lawsuits may drive food companies in other, potentially worse, directions. We don’t know how morphing what should be a nutrition policy into a safety policy will entice activists to agitate for more policies that move way ahead of science.

What we do know is that the moment we leave the necessary science and sound policy behind, it’s a crapshoot. If that’s what we are going to do, why we do we need “expert” science agencies?