In 1993, the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study found that a high intake of trans fat may increase the risk of heart disease by 50 percent. That’s where the trans fat story started in Denmark, ending a decade later with a ban on added trans fats in 2003. It took another ten years before the United States even started considering a ban. All the while, trans fats were killing tens of thousands of Americans every year. With so many people dying, why did it take so long for the United States to even suggest taking action? I explore this in my video Controversy Over the Trans Fat Ban.

One can look at the fight over New York City’s trans fat ban for a microcosm of the national debate. Not surprisingly, opposition came from the food industry, complaining about “government intrusion” and “liken[ing] the city to a ‘nanny state.’” “Are trans fat bans…the road to food fascism?”

A ban on added trans fats might save 50,000 American lives every year, which could save the country tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs, but not so fast! If people eating trans fat die early, think about how much we could save on Medicare and Social Security. Indeed, “smokers actually cost society less than nonsmokers, because smokers die earlier.” So, “we should be careful about making claims about the potential cost-savings of trans fat bans….more research is needed on the effects of these policies, including effects on the food industry.” Yes, we might save 50,000 lives a year, but we can’t forget to think about the “effects on the food industry”!

How about “education and product labeling” rather than “the extreme measure of banning trans fats”? As leading Danish cardiologist “puts it bluntly, ‘Instead of warning consumers about trans fats and telling them what they are, we’ve [the Danes] simply removed them.’” But we’re Americans! “As they say in North America: ‘You can put poison in food if you label it properly.’”

People who are informed and know the risks should be able to eat whatever they want, but that assumes they’re given all the facts, which doesn’t always happen “due to deception and manipulation by food producers and retailers.” And, not surprisingly, it’s the unhealthiest of foods that are most commonly promoted using deceptive marketing. It’s not that junk food companies are evil or want to make us sick. “The reason is one of simple economics”—processed foods simply “offer higher profit margins and are shelf-stable, unlike fresh foods such as fruit and vegetables.” The food industry’s “model of systemic dishonesty,” some argue, “justifies some minimal level of governmental intervention.”

But is there a slippery slope? “Today, trans fats; tomorrow, hot dogs.” Or, what about the reverse? What if the government makes us eat broccoli? This argument actually came up in the Supreme Court case over Obamacare. As Chief Justice Roberts said, Congress could start ordering everyone to buy vegetables, a concern Justice Ginsburg labeled “the broccoli horrible.” Hypothetically, Congress could compel the American public to go plant-based, however, no one can offer the “hypothetical and unreal possibility…of a vegetarian state” as a credible argument. “Judges and lawyers live on the slippery slope of analogies; they are not supposed to ski it to the bottom,” said one legal scholar.

If anything, what about the slippery slope of inaction? “Government initially defaulted to business interests in the case of tobacco and pursued weak and ineffective attempts at education” to try to counter all the tobacco industry lies. Remember what happened? “The unnecessary deaths could be counted in the millions. The U.S. can ill afford to repeat this mistake with diet.”

Once added trans fats are banned, the only major source in the American diet will be the natural trans fats found in animal fat. For more on this, see Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat and Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy.

Ideally how much trans fat should we eat a day? Zero, and the same goes for saturated fat and cholesterol. See Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero, Good, Great, Bad, and Killer Fats, and Lipotoxicity: How Saturated Fat Raises Blood Sugar.


More on industry hysterics and manipulation in:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

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