Ban Trans Fats

Monday, November 6, 2006

WE LIKE french fries, doughnuts and pie as much as the next editorial board. That's why we hope that the New York City Health Department's push to ban trans fatty acids from the city's foods succeeds -- and inspires the federal Food and Drug Administration to catch up.

Last week New York health officials held a public hearing on a proposal to cap what are commonly called trans fats at 0.5 gram per serving in the Big Apple's 20,000 or so restaurants. The evidence that doctors and public health experts presented makes you think twice about picking up a Whopper: Trans fats, which are chemically engineered, decrease levels of desirable cholesterol while increasing harmful cholesterol; they increase dangerous inflammation that can contribute to the onset of diabetes; and they harden artery walls, which increases blood pressure. Trans fats are much worse than even naturally occurring -- and still very unhealthy -- saturated fats such as those found in butter. Dariush Mozaffarian, a Harvard cardiologist and epidemiologist, calculated that up to 22 percent of heart attacks in the United States are the result of trans fat consumption.

Cue an assortment of critics -- many representing the restaurant industry -- who variously claim that such a measure would hurt mom-and-pop diners, reduce consumers' freedom to eat what they want or diminish the tastiness of McDonald's fries. We would sympathize with the opponents of the trans fat ban if it weren't so easy and inexpensive to use other, less harmful products without significantly altering the taste of the food. Kraft recently eliminated trans fats from its Oreo cookies. Could you tell? Similarly, Wendy's tested its new frying oil in 370 franchises, and customers didn't notice the difference. Denmark imposed a national ban on trans fats with which even McDonald's has complied.

Since trans fats aren't irreplaceable, objections for the sake of consumer freedom are also unconvincing. As with lead added to paint, trans fats are unnecessary additives to consumer products that can cause significant harm -- and many Americans don't even know they are in the restaurant food they are eating.

Currently, the FDA considers all uses of trans fats to be "generally regarded as safe," a designation that allows food producers to use trans fats liberally. According to the FDA, however, "safe" means "a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under its intended conditions of use" -- a criterion that trans fats no longer satisfy. Federal regulators should promptly move to revoke the "generally regarded as safe" status for most -- if not all -- uses of trans fats, which would effectively eliminate trans fats from American food. Leaving local jurisdictions to regulate trans fats, on the other hand, is an unnecessarily arduous way to stop their use.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company