The FDA And The Irresistible Urge To Control Other People's Lives

A few days ago the FDA came out with a "final determination" that "partially hydrogenated oils," sometimes known as trans fats, are no longer considered "generally safe" for human consumption.  These substances will now be banned from the food supply as of 2018, unless someone can talk our all-knowing but merciful overlords into granting a reprieve for some specific use.

So yesterday New York Times food writer and op-ed columnist Mark Bittman uttered the typical New York Times take on the situation.  Basically, the take is "it's about time," and moreover it's only because of immense pressure from "Big Food" that they have waited so long, let alone granted another three years to comply while thousands more people get killed.  As usual in Pravda, no mention is given at all of the idea that individual citizens should have some freedom or say in the matter.

The good news is that — finally — the Food and Drug Administration is banning food containing trans fats, although really only sort of, and really only after overwhelming evidence (and more than one lawsuit) made their dangers impossible to ignore. And in typical pro-industry fashion, the F.D.A. is not only allowing companies three years to get trans fats out of most foods, but will consider manufacturers’ petitions to keep them in. 

Sorry, Mark, but this narrative is complete baloney.  As far as I remember -- and I was around at the time -- it was the government that pushed trans fats on the people.  OK, they didn't explicitly use the word "trans fat," but what they did do was go on a campaign against saturated fat.  And there aren't a hundred alternatives to saturated fat that come close to mimicking its taste and texture.

Here's a history of the subject by Steve Malanga from the Spring 2011 issue of City Journal.   Malanga traces government meddling in your diet back to the 1970s:

Nevertheless, in the 1970s, Democratic senator George McGovern’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs decided to fight the apparent epidemic by making recommendations on nutrition. . . .   Settling on the unproven theory that cholesterol was behind heart disease, the committee issued its guidelines in 1977, urging Americans to reduce the fat that they consumed from 40 percent to 30 percent of their daily calories, principally by eating less meat and fewer dairy products. The committee also advised raising carbohydrate intake to 60 percent of one’s calories and slashing one’s intake of cholesterol by a quarter.

The government was telling us all to reduce fat in the diet.  And not just any fat -- the fat they really said should be reduced was the fat in "meat and dairy products," that is, saturated fat.    Well, if you cut out meat and butter and your body still wants some fat, that leaves you with margarine and cooking oils as the obvious alternatives.  In other words, trans fat.

So where was the food activist community on this?  Of course, they were accusing the food industry of resisting the government's efforts so that they could keep selling the killer meat and butter.  Malanga:

A good example was the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which in 1975 organized a National Food Day that included, the New York Times reported, an “all-out attack” on foods that it considered harmful. On the hit list: prime beef, high in fat and cholesterol.  When the McGovern committee issued its guidelines, these advocacy groups attacked opponents as shills for the food industry. . . .

In the 70s you were a shill for the food industry if you stood up for meat and butter, and today you are a shill for the food industry if you stand up for margarine and cooking oil.  Go figure.

In 1980, and every five years since, the Department of Agriculture has come out with its official government-approved Dietary Guidelines.  In the 1980 Guidelines and every iteration since, they have strongly urged reduction of saturated fat in the diet.  The 2010 Guidelines -- which are the most recent version and are still out there -- continue to urge reduction of saturated fat in the diet, with barely a passing mention of trans fats.  (The 2015 Guidelines are expected out shortly.  We'll see how they walk this one back.)

Did the government know what it was doing when it urged reduction in dietary saturated fat?  They didn't have a clue.  This ridiculous campaign was based on no more than some simple-minded unproven ideas, like the idea that "fat" must be what makes you "fat," or the idea that fat is kind of sticky so it must be what is "clogging you arteries."  Forty years since the McGovern committee, and still there literally isn't any evidence whatsoever to support the idea that consumption of saturated fats leads to more heart disease or any other bad health outcome.  The longer this goes on the worse it gets.  For example, Malanga cites a meta-analysis of studies published in Scientific American in 2010:

More recent research has further undermined the cholesterol-as-bad-guy hypothesis. Scientific American summed up the disturbing state of the evidence in April 2010. The magazine cited a meta-analysis—that is, a combination of data from several large studies—of the dietary habits of 350,000 people worldwide, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which found no association between the consumption of saturated fats and heart disease.

So now, exactly what reason is there to think that these people know any more what they are doing this time around than they did last time?  Do they, for example, have a study of large numbers of people showing a statistically significant correlation between eating high amounts of trans fats with heart disease and early death?  Absolutely not.  Read the "science" section of the FDA's determinations here, and you will search in vain for any such study.  Instead they rely on a weak chain of logic that could have multiple flaws:  the theory is that there is a correlation between eating trans fats and increased LDL ("bad") cholesterol in the blood, which in turn is correlated with increased risk of heart disease.  Plenty of the commenters to the FDA's proposed rule accused the FDA of cherry-picking studies to claim the correlation between trans fat consumption and higher LDL, and the FDA just responds, "We disagree."  And the link between blood cholesterol and heart disease is weak and has never been established at all for huge sections of the population, for example, women.  So that supports a total ban for the whole population?

Here is Bittman's take on whether a ban is justified:

Why wait three years? Why not get these heart-stopping products off the shelves now, as we do when food is contaminated with E. coli? If the evidence is that trans fats are more harmful than other fats, and other fats exist, why delay? Protecting Big Food’s profits is the only possible answer.

The answer, Mark, is that these people have no idea what they are doing.  They just want the thrill that comes from the feeling of power from ordering other people around.  This isn't remotely like e-coli, which has a near 100% correlation with serious infection.  This is double layers of weak correlation with lots of confounding factors that may be involved and no thorough understanding of the causal mechanism.  The uncertainties are huge and it is entirely possible that this whole thing is completely wrong, just like they were the last time with saturated fat.

Now in my own case, I never liked margarine.  I thought it tasted bad.  And baked goods made with margarine are hugely inferior to those made with butter.  So I won't miss the stuff. 

But lots of people could have good reason to want to buy food made with trans fats.  Baked goods made with margarine are a lot cheaper than those made with butter.  At a supermarket where I shop, the difference can be up to a factor of three.  So this is yet another example of elites unthinkingly imposing a big new burden on lower income people.  Based on essentially no evidence whatsoever.