Matt Cheung’s uninformed article (Banning Trans Fats–How Important Is It?, Jan. 16) has no place in Food Safety News, unless the latter now has a fiction section.

Mr. Cheung questions whether it makes sense for states to be devoting resources to banning artificial trans fat from restaurants.  Of course it does, particularly when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture have shown no inclination–except for FDA’s valuable labeling requirement on packaged foods–to expunge artificial trans fat from the food supply.  The states’ actions have had a salutary effect on spurring companies big and small to get rid of the most harmful oil of all.  Mr. Cheung states that “[T]he inevitable inconsistencies will likely lead to less industry compliance,” but he doesn’t provide–because it doesn’t exist–a shred of evidence that the laws have been inconsistent or that industry has not been able to fully comply.

Though Cheung stated, “When a restaurant stops using trans fats it likely uses saturated fats instead,” he’s simply wrong again.  Restaurants deserve credit for replacing partially hydrogenated oil with mostly polyunsaturated oils, which reduce the risk of heart disease.

Likewise, he says about snack foods, “But look at the nutrition label and you will find that they still use plenty of saturated fats.”  Wrong again.  For instance, Frito-Lay, the biggest maker of snack foods, switched to unsaturated oils that are low in saturated fat.

Then he suggests that trans fat should not be banned from restaurants when other harmful substances, like salt, abound.  Different issues need to be handled separately.  First, trans fat is unique, because it is so harmful and so easily replaced with more-healthful oils.  There’s been a massive switch away from trans over the past several years without any disruption of taste or cost.  Excessive salt, too, causes great harm…and levels can and must be reduced.  In fact, New York City’s health department, following the lead of the British government, has proposed sensible sodium-reduction targets for manufactured and restaurant foods.  I suspect that the FDA shortly will join that effort.

Finally, Mr. Cheung says that we should focus on the immediate harm caused by Salmonella and other pathogens, the focus of Marler Clark’s litigation, rather than the longer-term harm caused by trans fat.  Putting aside the fact that trans fat likely has been causing tens of thousands of unnecessary fatal heart attacks annually, we can and should be addressing both hazards.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  CSPI has long sought reductions in foodborne pathogens and reductions in artificial trans fat and salt, in restaurant foods, packaged foods, and fresh foods.

  • I appreciate your comments Dr. Jacobson. I will address your criticisms as respectfully as possible.
    First, you say that the FDA and USDA have shown no inclination toward banning trans fats – except for their labeling requirement. That is mostly true – as evident by the fact that trans fats are still regarded as “Generally Recognized As Safe” by the FDA. In 2004, you petitioned the FDA to stop the food industry from using trans fats. I applaud that earlier effort and hope you continue working toward federal action. You might also consider supporting Fred Kummerow, Ph.D., a University of Illinois professor who recently submitted a petition to the FDA to ban trans fats (August 7, 2009).[1]
    Second, you state that there is no evidence that there is any inconsistency between state laws. This is partially true since the California state ban was the first to pass. When I wrote, “inevitable inconsistencies will likely lead to less industry compliance,” it was also in comparison to a national ban, as suggested by the preceding and subsequent sentences. Since you mentioned the labeling of trans fats, however, let’s look at menu labeling laws as an illustrative example. Some localities require restaurants to list calories and fat, a few require sodium content, and others want carbohydrates listed as well. How many different variations of menu labeling laws would you say exist? Would you agree that it is more difficult for national restaurant chains to comply with these different laws instead of one federal standard?
    Third, you point out that restaurants can replace partially hydrogenated oils with polyunsaturated oils. That is true, but that is not what California’s law mandates, nor is it in the model legislation that you have encouraged cities and states to adopt.[2] Though it might be speculation that restaurants would use saturated fats instead of trans fats, it is also speculation that they will use polyunsaturated fats.
    Fourth, you mention that Frito-Lay uses unsaturated oils instead of trans fats. Is it possible that Frito-Lay’s change stemmed from the shift in public perception of trans fats and the federal regulation that requires them to list trans fats? It should also be noted that under California’s law a restaurant could serve a bag of chips containing trans fat as long as it is sealed. Additionally, California’s ban permits up to half a gram of trans fats per serving. Dr. Carlos Camargo, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has referred to this is a “fake-zero,” because a consumer could easily exceed the daily intake limit through multiple servings – a statement that you have supported.[3-4] I would also point out that even if those products do not contain trans fats, I would be careful suggesting to consumers that they are healthy. My point was simply that a food product with claims that it does not contain trans fat is not necessarily nutritious.
    Fifth, salt restriction was simply offered as an example of another area where states can also regulate if they so choose. Personally, from public health perspective, I would not be opposed to limitations on sodium in manufactured and restaurant foods. But like trans fats, I believe this would be better handled by the FDA, and not by state health departments.
    Finally, you seem cynical as to why I emphasize foodborne illness above trans fats. Think about it this way: what do I gain from advocating for greater health department focus on foodborne pathogens, especially if it will reduce the amount of outbreaks, thereby reducing our business? The truth is, as someone who does eat out periodically, I am simply more worried about foodborne illness. I also realize that health departments, and legislators, have to prioritize health concerns because of time and resources. According to the model legislation, implementation and enforcement of a trans fat ban should rest on “the department of public health and the local boards of health within their respective jurisdictions.”[2] It has also been reported that state health departments are conducting fewer foodborne outbreak investigations, possibly because of “a serious gap in state public health spending.”[5] As such, I worry that a health department enforcing a trans fat ban might miss conditions that could lead to an outbreak. Additionally, if I dislike the trans fat, sodium, or caloric content of food at a restaurant, I can choose to eat less, or eat elsewhere. On the other hand, foodborne pathogens are something that I have little control over, and thus, I rely on the health department to protect the food supply. While I know that there are people who can accept some amount of trans fats, I find it hard to believe that anyone would be okay with Salmonella on the menu.

  • In 2005 i wrote the book “Trans Fats: the hidden killer in our food,” published by Simon & Schuster, N.Y. Over 300,000 of the book were printed. The thrust of the book then was an alert to those un-educated in this dire issue. A brief subsequent revision in 2007 after the Institute of Medicine mandated that the FDA require “proper” labelling beginning in 2006 (which still has not taken place to those of us who understand the inadequacy of the labels) brought the book up to date then.
    Now, gross mishandling of the issue at hand continues; Hispanic and Asian groceries still sell food with partially hydrogenated oils of unknown amounts; JOYVA halvah, a candy made in Brooklyn, sold throughout NYC and the rest of the USA (in many shops considered bastions of good and healthy eating) is, beside sugar, mostly partially hydrogenated oils. Costco sells Ritz Crackers with partially hydrogenated oils close to packages of organic chicken breasts.
    Who will be the police? While I agree with Michael Jacobsen and not much of Matt Cheung’s reasoning it is important for us all to know how deceitful the handling of this entire issue is and Dr. Cheung has pointed out a major cover-up: in 1956 the FDA instigated GRAS, a list of foods “Generally Recognized As Safe.” This list, still intact, includes partially hydrogenated oils!!!! Perhaps CSPI might consider taking this on as one major undertaking; I got nowhere.