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Banning Trans Fats–How Important Is It?

On January 1, 2010, California became the first state to ban trans fats in restaurants. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill back in July 2008, but restaurants had until the first of this year to comply. Under the new law, restaurants may only use oils, margarine, and shortening with less than half a gram of trans fat per serving.

Trans fats are generally considered unhealthy, and have long been linked to heart disease and obesity. These fats are created through a process called “partial hydrogenation,” where hydrogen is pumped into liquid oil at high temperatures. This process improves the shelf-life of foods, but the resulting trans fats have been shown to lower high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), the “good” cholesterol, and increase low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the “bad” cholesterol. This in turn causes arteries to become more clogged and increases the risk for heart disease. One study even showed that just a 2 percent increase in energy intake from trans fats was associated with a 23 percent increase in the incidence of coronary artery disease (Mozaffarian et al. 2006).

For those involved in the movement against trans fats, California’s ban represents a huge victory for public health and serves as a model for other states to follow. Groups such as the California Academy of Family Physicians and the American Heart Association have rallied behind the state’s new law, and have urged other states to follow suit.

Not all organizations, however, have been as supportive of the ban. For example, the California Restaurant Association has argued that singling out trans fats is arbitrary and will prove costly to enforce. It also suggested that the ban should be handled on a federal level, not by individual states.

While some might question the restaurant association’s resistance to California’s ban, it does raise a valid concern: why is there a state ban on just trans fats?  Clearly, there is persuasive scientific evidence that trans fats are hazardous to public health.  Further, few would even try to argue that there is any appreciable benefit to the use of trans fats. Regardless, here are three reasons why banning trans fats may not be as important of a state health priority as many have suggested.

1. A product that does not contain trans fats is not necessarily healthy. When a restaurant stops using trans fats it likely uses saturated fats instead. Though saturated fats are not as harmful, there is still plenty of literature linking saturated fats to obesity and heart disease. But I am more concerned when businesses promote the health value of a product simply because it does not contain trans fats. To some customers, the absence of trans fats leads them to believe that it is safe to eat more. The next time you are in your grocery store, walk down the snack food aisle and count how many brands of chips advertise in large letters that they do not use trans fats. But look at the nutrition label and you will find that they still use plenty of saturated fats.

2. Similar restrictions could be made on just about any “bad” ingredient. For example, the government could put limitations on sodium content. Excessive sodium is known to raise blood pressure, which leads to hypertension, and there is also evidence that sodium adversely affects calcium and bone metabolism and even contributes to stomach cancer (Wardener and MacGregor 2002). While sodium in the diet is not necessarily unhealthy in lower levels (in contrast to trans fats), these days most people far exceed the recommended value because of processed and prepared foods. So why not limit the amount of salt that restaurants can use and require that all prepackaged foods meet the definition of “low sodium”? The ugly truth is – many people like the taste of salt. As a result, states are reluctant to place regulations on unhealthy foods because people value our right to choose – even if that means choosing unhealthy foods.

3. It can be a distraction from other health concerns. Presumably, the burden of enforcing a trans fat ban falls on health inspectors.  Personally, I would prefer that inspectors focus on looking for unsanitary cooking and storage conditions, rather than checking to see whether a restaurant is using margarine or butter. While consuming trans fats certainly contributes to heart disease, E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella will make me sick right now. And based on the sheer number of foodborne illness outbreaks that have occurred just this year, my guess is that food inspection agencies are probably stretched quite thin already.

To clarify, I am not at all against banning trans fats.  In fact, a strong argument can be made to prohibit their use on a national level.  I merely question whether states should be handling this issue.  Not only will there be wasted resources due to 50 different legislative agendas, but the inevitable inconsistencies will likely lead to less industry compliance.  Federal law, on the other hand, will be easier for national restaurant chains and food manufacturers to comply with, and will also carry the full weight of federal agencies.  But then again, trans fats are only one problem in the food system, and there are plenty of other issues to tackle first.

References

Mozaffarian D, Katan M, Ascherio A, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. Trans Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease. N Engl J Med. 2006;354(15):1601-1613.

Wardener HE, MacGregor GA. Harmful effects of dietary salt in addition to hypertension. J Hum Hypertens. 2002;16:213-223.

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