Monday February 12, 2007
I can’t possibly begin to explain how much this crap bugs me. For those not following along, there’s been a wave of anti-trans-fat legislation sweeping the nation. It started when New York City banned it in December, and now Miami-Dade is getting in on the act.
Trans fat (aka Trans fatty acids) is some nasty stuff. (The 2¢ version of the science is that hydrogen atoms are added to existing fats, changing their molecular structure. Hey look, now they’re partially hydrogenated.) Restaurants and especially fast-food joints love the stuff, because it lasts forever without going rancid like other oils, and because it makes stuff taste deeee-licious. The bad news is that it’s a completely artificial food-like substance, and it will hasten the death of you. Trans fats pretty much stick around in your arteries forever, causing coronary heart disease and probably contributing to cancer and diabetes. Plus, ingested regularly, it will make you fat beyond your wildest dreams.
So, let’s get rid of it, right? We’ll save millions on public health costs, and all the kids complaining about slightly-less-delicious fries will thank us later. We’ve banned smoking and heroin, and those were way more fun then stupid artificial fats.
Not so fast. Trans fats are different. I would personally love to ban them from my diet, but passing a law against them crosses a creepy line. There is a very reasonable argument that smoking hurts people standing around the smoker. Even when you’re outside and it sounds silly, at least there a theoretical possibility of second hand smoke. No such luck with trans fats — you can stuff your face with them in my immediate presence and my exposure risk is nil. So this is strictly about looking out for our fellow humans, and the aforementioned public health bill.
But the public health argument doesn’t lead to a slippery slope — it falls off the edge of a cliff. We’re well into the territory of telling you what you can and can’t eat if we go for this ban. This opens so many doors that our self-appointed protectors won’t know where to turn next. How about how much sugar is in certain foods? How about things that pretend to be vegetables and aren’t? How about that other artificially-created horrible-for-you food-like substance, high fructose corn syrup? But you know, it’s not any one food you eat in isolation, it’s really the sum total of you diet that is or isn’t healthy. So really we should be keeping up with everyone’s whole diet.
The other reason this ban is an idiotic idea is that there is an equally effective and much less intrusive alternative: mandatory labeling. It’s the American way! As of January, Food sold in stores must list trans fats content (reports have food makers reformulating foods like Oreos to replace the dreaded stuff). Let’s just require restaurants to indicated which foods contain trans fats. Say, with a skull and crossbones icon.
Consider that an outright ban is a ban on certain types of food. Have we come so far in this country since September 11 that we’re ready to try to protect ourselves by banning food? And don’t kid yourself, only in a post-9-11 world America this be thinkable. We’ve gotten so used to the government taking things away “for our safety” and without any logical justification that this actually doesn’t sound unreasonable. “Sorry comrade, but you can’t take that water bottle on the plane.” What?! New York City should be ashamed of itself, and nobody who cares about freedom should emulate their example.
Update: In the New Times, Tamara Lush surveys locals about trans fats. The overwhelming majority miss the point and say shit like “well if they’re bad, then ban ‘em!”