To Ban or Not to Ban

It’s not every day that the FDA proposes a ban on a relatively common ingredient in processed food: trans fats. Is it time to say goodbye to microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, and even margarine?

Here’s the history: originally food manufacturers switched from saturated fats to partially hydrogenated, or trans fats, because saturated animal fats were implicated in heart disease. Beginning in the 1980s artificially created trans fats were considered the healthy option. Now it’s clear that trans fats raise the levels of LDL, the bad cholesterol, and drop the levels of HDL, the good cholesterol, and so cause their own heart problems.

It took seven years for a proposal to label trans fats in food to turn into action. Since 2006 food manufacturers have had to list trans fats on their list of ingredients, unless there is 0.5 grams or less of trans fats in a serving.

Those who support the ban, such as the editorial board of the New York Times, base their support on the expected improvement in people’s health. Those who oppose the ban see it as government overreach, a nanny state telling people what they can and can’t eat.

For opponents it comes down to choice, a position I am sympathetic to. After all, cigarettes are not banned. Why can’t those who don’t want trans fats in their diets just avoid the stuff? It’s a reasonable argument, as long as choice is free, or at least cheap.

How cheap is choice? Trans fats are mostly found in heavily processed food, where cheapness is one of the important factors. Nowadays cheap food is often processed food, bought for its convenience as well as its low price.  

I don’t know whether trans fats should be banned or not, but I do think its important to look at the bigger processed food picture, and #HistChem will be doing just that this Wednesday evening, November 20th. David Schleifer and Bryant Simon will be discussing the question of choice on our show, “Why the Chicken Became a Nugget and Other Tales of Processed Food.” Watch it live at 6:00 p.m. EST on YouTube.

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