Getting rid of trans fats doesn’t meant the nutrition battle is over.
The Food and Drug Administration moved formally to eliminate artificial trans fat from Americans’ food on Tuesday, revoking the ingredient’s “generally recognized as safe” status. From here on, neither foodmakers nor their government regulators may assume that the artery-clogging oils are relatively benign, and manufacturers will have three years to cull them completely from the U.S. food supply. The FDA reckons that the result will be 20,000 fewer heart attacks and 7,000 fewer deaths per year.
This isn’t food fascism. It’s a long overdue, science-informed recognition that trans fats are both dangerous and unnecessary, and it’s about the least the government can do to encourage healthier eating.
Essentially a ban on trans fats, the FDA’s move represents the final stage in a long fight scientists and public health advocates have waged with the food industry. Though trans fats aren’t necessary to make food tasty, these partially hydrogenated oils are solid at room temperature and have long shelf lives. Those conveniences, however, could not justify the toll the ingredients took on people’s cardiovascular systems.
Trans fat is the worst sort of fat you can eat; it lowers “good” cholesterol and increases “bad” cholesterol, a double-whammy that encourages heart disease. The FDA began requiring nutrition labels to list the amount of trans fats in packaged foods in 2006. That same year, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pressed to ban trans fats in city restaurants, creating a significant demand for trans-fat alternatives virtually overnight. The combination of these efforts pushed trans fat consumption down 80 percent between 2003 and 2012.
But that lingering 20 percent was still a major public health concern. Americans were still consuming about a gram of trans fat per day. Some companies didn’t remove or didn’t remove fully trans fats from their products. Others didn’t have to label trans-fat content if it fell below half a gram per serving. That could easily add up over multiple servings. Absent any good case for trans fats’ continued use, Bloomberg and the FDA were more than warranted in requiring a full transition to alternatives, which has turned out to be relatively easy.
The harder question is what else to do about Americans’ unhealthy eating, which is a public health nightmare. Rates of obesity and metabolic disease, which translate into people living shorter and more painful lives, remain unacceptably high. The annual cost of treating obesity-related ailments such as diabetes and heart disease is more than $100 billion. Trans fats explain only a fraction of this broader problem.
Some ingredients, such as added sugars, can’t be easily replaced without affecting taste. Some don’t have a public health case against them as strong as that against trans fats. The challenge for policymakers is finding some sort of intermediate policy that stops short of banning bad-for-you ingredients but still effectively moderates people’s consumption of them. Bloomberg was onto something when he moved to limit soda sizes in New York City, a subtle psychological nudge discouraging massive servings of syrup.
As a general matter, however, we believe that taxing things the government wants to discourage is a way to achieve legitimate national goals with minimal economic disruption and individual coercion. A tax of appropriate size on added sugars, for example, would discourage consumption and encourage food- and beverage-makers to develop new recipes.
Editorial by The Washington Post