Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Food Politics: New York City vs. Trans Fats, Final Edition

So New York City has finally banned trans fats. A reader asks for my opinion on this legislation. Two thoughts:

1. Why not ban all trans fats served in restaurants? Under the new law, a restaurant can still serve a bag of pre-packaged chips with trans fats but can't fry their own chips in oil containing trans fats. I understand the importance of pragmatism in politics, but this seems simply hypocritical to me. A trans fat eaten in a restaurant is the same no matter what the source, pre-packaged or not. If the concern is that a consumer might not know that the fried or baked goods served in a restaurant contain trans fats, then require labeling, just like is required on packaged products. Anything else is hypocritical.

2. I'm opposed to all food bans that are meant to protect individuals from themselves. This is the foundation of my beliefs on these food politics issues, and is based on my own moral and political values regarding individual freedom. Where does it stop? If we can't have one gram of trans fat b/c it is so bad for us, what's next? I'm not a health scientist, but my intuition is that a few grams of trans fat can't be nearly as bad as tens of grams of saturated fat, so will they ban rib-eye steaks next? What about chicken-fried bacon?

The Center for Consumer Freedom, which is funded by Big Food, put up an ad suggesting that pizza, hot dogs, corned beef, and coffee are next. Yes, it's hyperbole, but the principle is correct. A ban on any unhealthy food can be justified using exactly the same reasoning that the New York Board of Health has used in this case. And despite my reservations about advocacy funded by agribusiness, I'll support the Center for Consumer Freedom much more readily than the the "scientific" busybodies at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

For a hilarious take on all these issues, but with a real nuanced political message, I highly recommend Thank You For Smoking.

Addendum: The bad qualities of trans fats are well-known (raises bad cholesterol, lowers good cholesterol), but the positive culinary qualities are less well known. Partially-hydrogenated oils (which is where most of the trans fats we consume come from) are inexpensive, have a long-shelf life, are solid at room temperature (= good for shelf stability), don't break down in a hot fryer, and make for exceptionally flaky pie crusts and biscuits. Do note that most of these qualities are also true of animal fats, such as lard, but that restaurants and industry switched to hydrogenated oils b/c of the health risks of saturated fats. Shucks.

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