By MARSHA MERCER
When the founding fathers talked about freedom, they never envisioned artery-clogging trans fats or the microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas and other processed foods that contain them.
But when the federal government started slow-walking toward a ban of artificial trans fats, critics invoked the freedom to eat whatever they please, regardless of the cost to their health, as if it were guaranteed by the Constitution.
The conservative Heritage Foundation warned about “Government Control of Your Diet: Threats to `Freedom to Eat,’” in a 2013 issue brief about the evils of nutrition information on menus and of food bans.
“There are some lines the government should never cross. This certainly includes seeking to control what people eat,” wrote Daren Bakst, research fellow in agricultural policy at Heritage.
Even if you agree, it’s hard to argue with the many medical studies since 1993 that have linked partially hydrogenated oils and heart disease. Trans fats raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol and lower the HDL or “good” cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
The federal government estimates that eliminating trans fats could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 heart-disease deaths a year in the United States.
Other countries -- Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland – already have set limits on trans fats. In California, a 2008 law limits trans fats in restaurants. The cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia have similar measures.
But our federal government moves with glacial speed. On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration finally ordered food manufacturers to stop using trans fats -- unless they get approval for the additive – by June 18, 2018.
Critics say the new rule is ridiculous and unnecessary. Since 2006, food manufacturers have been required to list trans fats on Nutrition Facts labels, and they voluntarily cut the amount. Heeding consumer demand, many large companies -- including Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonalds – have cut trans fats.
Trans fat consumption dropped nearly 80 percent between 2003 and 2012, but current intake is still a health concern as there’s no safe level of trans fats, FDA said.
Public health groups were joyful about FDA’s announcement, and manufacturers were relieved to have three more years to reformulate their products. The cost to manufacturers is estimated at $6.2 billion but the benefit in reduced medical costs is $140 billion over 20 years, FDA estimated.
The idea of adding hydrogen to oil to make a solid fat was a 20th century invention that brought us Crisco as an alternative to lard. Trans fat won the hearts of food manufacturers, bakeries and restaurants because it inexpensively extends shelf life, improves texture and enhances taste.
At first it was thought that trans fat would also be healthier than natural saturated fats, but over time medical studies showed otherwise.
To avoid trans fats, check a product’s ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oils. Even if the Nutrition Facts label lists “0 grams” of trans fats, the product can have half a gram per serving, and that can add up. Besides pizza and microwave popcorn, trans fats are found in frostings, packaged pies, stick margarines and coffee creamers.
Conservatives view FDA’s rule as more overreach by the Obama administration, a shove down the slippery slope to give government more power over what we eat.
Critics argue that everything from nutrition labels and calorie counts at restaurants to capping the size of sugary drinks infringes on personal freedom, as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned when he tried to limit drink size. Ultimately, the state’s highest court said no.
Last November, voters in Berkeley, Calif., overwhelmingly passed a 1-cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks to be added to drink distributors’ business license fees.
In Texas, though, the new agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, favors allowing school districts to bring back deep fat fryers and soft drinks. The state banned both in public schools a decade ago.
“It’s not about french fries; it’s about freedom,” Miller says.
Really? Even Crisco has modernized and greatly reduced its trans fat content. For most of us, freedom means good health.
©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.