John Tierney, in his column in today’s New York Times, writes about the proposed ban on trans fats in restaurants in New York City. Tierney takes New York’s health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, to task for his jihad against restaurants in the Big Apple cooking with trans fats and accuses him of wanting to turn the city into the Big Nanny. As he gets wound up in his argument against Frieden’s actions, Tierney posits that forcing restaurants to stop using trans fats could actually cause harm in the long run.
Horror of horrors, by causing restaurants to return to using saturated fats.
For all the rhetoric against trans fats, they’re not worse for you than the old-fashioned saturated fats in lard and butter and various cooking oils. As Gina Kolata reported in The Times last year, the scientific consensus from the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, and the Food and Drug Administration is that trans fats are on a par with saturated fats.
Tierney falls into the trap of believing that saturated fats are harmful. He accepts what is at best a frail hypothesis as an absolute fact.
He correctly points out that
Food companies and restaurants voluntarily switched to trans fats to appease consumers and food activists worried about saturated fats. Now that those same activists have made trans fat the new bogeyman, restaurant chains and food companies are again looking to appeal to their customers with healthier alternatives…
But worries that
if New York arbitrarily imposed a deadline, the simplest way to comply would be to go back to using saturated fats. The food wouldn’t be any healthier, but it would sound more virtuous after the grandstanding by Bloomberg and his health commissioner about their heroic reduction of trans fats.
Since Tierney, like so many others, has uncritically accepted the notion that saturated fats are dangerous. He believes that anyone truly bent on improving the health of the public shouldn’t worry about trans fats, but should instead look to banning saturated fats because
saturated fats are a more logical problem to address than trans fats because we consume a lot more of them.
Although I believe trans fats are far from harmless, I agree with Tierney that the health commissioner is more than a little over reaching on this. Had it not been for the misguided efforts of other food police types, we wouldn’t have the trans fat problem today. We would still be using saturated fat and our food would still taste just as good as it always has.
It’s almost impossible to rush to action without all the facts in place without getting a real slap in the face from the law of unintended consequences, which is precisely what has happened with the trans fat debacle.
My concern comes from the realization that if a regular columnist for the New York Times uncritically accepts the notion that saturated fats are bad (instead of the unproven hypothesis that it is) and states it as fact, what hope is there that the great unwashed masses will ever see the light?