Tuesday, January 16, 2007

On Trans Fat

Many of you are probably aware that New York City voted to ban trans-fats last month. Restaurants have, I believe, six months to comply.

I have watched this unfold with interest, though I have vacillated between opinions. Taking an idea from Plato, I will convey some of the arguments on both sides of the issue in the form of a dialogue. The characters will be Milton Friedman (Milt) and Mayor Bloomberg (Mayor). Please note that these specific arguments do not represent actual arguments by these men, especially in the case of Mr. Friedman because he is dead. These arguments are forms of the arguments I've heard from many sources.

Mayor: My city has banned trans-fat.
Milt: What do you mean? You have banned the import of it and will have NYC customs agents enforcing it as you come into the city?
Mayor: No, we banned it from being served in restaurants. You can still get it in foods at grocery stores if you wish.
Milt: Why?
Mayor: Trans-fats constitute a public health risk. They have been proven to contribute to heart disease and other bad stuff.
Milt: So you are banning it because you don't think your citizens will avoid it if you don't ban it, despite its dangers.
Mayor: Many of my citizens aren't aware of the dangers. The dangers have only recently been discovered. Restaurants have been particularly resistant to providing information on whether or not they use trans fats on menu items to diners.
Milt: You mean some of the restaurants have been resistant. Subway has many trans-fat free alternatives that it adverstises. KFC announced it will stop using trans-fat in it's chicken batter. Wendy's announced they won't use it in their fries. The free market is working. As time goes on, more consumers will become aware of the dangers of trans-fats and demand that restaurants either stop using it or give information about which menu items have it. The law is unneccesary.
Mayor: The market is working too slow. That is only three examples out of hundreds of restaurants and chains. In fact, the uniformity in which some groups of restaurants have resisted giving consumers and authorities information about their trans-fat usage suggests a form of collusion. That would be an violation of anti-trust laws, and an obstacle to the free market. Legistlation is needed.
Milt: You are using speculation as a basis for your conclusion. If you had true evidence of collusion, you could prosecute them for it. The truth is that you don't.
Mayor: Point taken, but we still need legistlation because the market is moving too slow. Hundreds of thousands of people are having their health damaged because they are being exposed to trans-fat.
Milt: I agree that trans-fat is damaging their health. Please further elaborate why it's the government's job to stop that.
Mayor: If we can make their lives better, then shouldn't we? It's also a matter of economics. If we can get rid of trans-fats there will be fewer health problems which will mean lower health insurance premiums, lower life insurance premiums, higher productivity...
Milt: Ah, of course, more tax revenue for you. Why don't you ban alcohol, cigarettes, March Madness, "American Idol", and all the other things that decrease productivity in your city?
Mayor: We tried alcohol. We do ban smoking in most public buildings. Television is different and you know it.
Milt: You ban smoking in public places to protect people from secondhand smoke. You tax cigarrettes to discourage people from smoking at all. Why don't you just tax the use of trans-fat in restaurants. That would give you some precious tax revenue.
Mayor: It would be too costly to administer. Besides, everyone would switch to non-trans-fat when faced with the tax anyway since it is not any more expensive.
Milt: Speaking of cost...how will you administer the ban, how much will it cost, and where will the money come from.
Mayor: I don't have the details, I don't know, and out of the city budget. We are confident that the benefits will outweigh the costs.
Milt: Interesting. You have little reason to be so confident considering you don't know how much it will cost and you haven't even estimated the benefits.
Mayor: Can you at least agree that despite all your idealistic objections, the citizens of New York will be better off when this goes into effect?
Milt: Perhaps many will. The question is will they be better off if they have to pay for the ban with higher taxes, more potholes, or fewer police officers when they could have the same effect personally by choosing to eat at particular restaurants that already use alternatives to trans-fats?
Mayor: Above, you acknowledged that trans-fat is damaging the health of some of my citizens. This will reverse that. True it will cost something, but the city council and I believe it is worth it.
Milt: You are making judgements about what things are worth to 10 million people all at once. You are making a decision for them that they can make for themselves.
Mayor: On the contrary. The city council and I were elected to make these sorts of decisions. Besides, public opinion is in my favor.

I chose this format because it amuses me.
I am interested to hear other people's views on this issue.


Cabeza said...

Nice use of Socratic dialectic. Seriously, I'm impressed that you put that together so well.

Trans fatty acids are essentially a poison. They do not exist anywhere in nature--they are completely man-made. They arose out of an attempt to keep frying oils from going rancid quite as often as they are wont to do. While I'm all for thinking economically, I am not for doing so at the expense of life and health. Trans fats have been shown to contribute toward heart disease and perhaps lead to the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Because they haven't been around long, we don't know what other effects they may have on the body. But so far, there is no positive effect. Except that it prolongs the in-fryer life of oil.

Would it be wrong for New York City to make a law against the use of small doses of strychnine in restaurant food? What if we discovered that motor oil lasts longer in a fryer than peanut oil? When we know that a substance is harmful, what is the sense in allowing it to be served?

I don't have a lot of faith in the American public, either. I think there are many people out there who do take the time to find out what is served where and how much of it they're eating, but I think that there is also a large faction of the American public that needs to be protected from itself. This is what classical republicanism is about--creating a safe and moral society. Part of the hope of that is that the lower classes and the uneducated will be lifted up to a level from which they can lift themselves up.

Banning trans fats, even if it doesn't go through, has raised public awareness of trans fats. The uneducated or ignorant are now less so. I think that overall, this is a good move on the part of NYC.

Warren said...

I'm opposed to the ban, and as a side note Milton Friedman is one of my favorite economists. That guy is all over the place in macro. But anyways, once the government has taken it upon itself to ban transfats, what's next? Froi Gras? Oh wait, that already happened in Chicago. Governments won't be copecetic banning one thing, they'll keep going and going.

Nick said...

I'll be upfront that I know nothing about trans-fat and have not looked at the relevant studies, but I'm always a little suspicious when any government jumps on the latest health craze of the week and legislates on it. If its really as bad as strychnine and motor oil, then by all means ban it, but lets make sure the science is solid first (again, maybe it is, I haven't checked) and not something like "consuming large amounts of chemical X will increase your risk of disease Y by 5%" Usually the amount they're saying you have to consume is outrageously large, and the increase in risk is within the margin of error. The newspapers love scary health stories like that, especially since the only ones reading them are over 65. Governments love acting on scary health stories because it created the perception that they're actually doing something. Kind of like Kyoto. Extremist lawmakers want it implemented, but they don't realize what an infinitesimally small effect it will have, and how expensive that small change will be. Well, maybe they do realize how little it will help, but want it implemented anyway so they can lie to the public and say they're doing something to help the environment.

end of rant

Nick said...

Ok, so I went and read a bunch of the scientific studies on trans fatty acids (hereafter referred to as TFAs), on the american heart association's website.

First, a note on the origin of TFAs. They occur in nature in meat (mainly from "ruminating" animals (I think they mean the animals that graze, like cows, and not the thinking kind, like dolphins and elephants)) and milk. They also are produced in the process of hydrogenation of fat (the process that makes it turn hard, and last longer). The hydrogenated fat contains more TFAs than naturally occuring TFAs in meat and dairy (but not orders of magnitude greater- I got the impression it was like 2 or 3 times the amount by weight of total fat).

They've compared the effect of TDAs on LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and HDL cholesterol (the good kind) versus the effect of saturated fats and mono/poly-unsaturated fats on the same cholesterol levels. It turns out that TFAs raise LDL levels and lower HDL level a bit more than saturated fats, but the data was not conclusive, and other, more objective data suggested otherwise:

Data related to trans fatty acid intake and risk of developing CVD have been inconsistent. Beyond the usual caveats that association does not prove causation, difficulties inherent in estimating trans fatty acid intake, as detailed above, complicate interpretation of data. Data derived from food-frequency questionnaires and weighed records support a relationship between trans fatty acid intake and risk for CVD. More objective measures of transfatty acid intake, independent of reporting bias or data bank information such as plasma or adipose tissue levels, for the most part do not support an association between trans fatty acid intake and risk of CVD. How closely such measures truly reflect long-term food intake have yet to be adequately determined. Data on individual fatty acids suggest an association between risk of CVD and 16:1 trans, which comes to a great extent from animal sources, and not 18:1 trans,which comes to a great extent from hydrogenated fat. These data are opposite to the relationship between source of transfatty acids and disease risk suggested by the food-frequency questionnaire data, making it difficult to draw conclusions at this time.

The conclusion of the article is that there may be a link between TFAs and an increased risk of raised bad cholesterol, and possibly even type 2 diabetes, but that the studies are far from conclusive. It also points out that some studies show that naturally occuring TFAs are worse than the artificial kind.

This article is about ten years old, but it is the main article on the AHA website in the "scientific study" catagory, so I assume that it is still current- you would think that if more damning studies came out, the AHA would link to them (I just wanted to say damning).

So I would have to say that this really is a case of bad media reporting, and politicians making it worse by scaring (and inconveniencing) the public by taking a such a drastic step. A more sensible thing to do (as individuals), is just be moderate in our eating habits. Eating some french fries bathed in fry oil will not kill us, but eating them every day is not exactly beneficial to our health. Same with beef, milk, candy, chips, vitamins, and basically anything we eat.

Since a positive relationship between TFAs and higher cholesterols have been found (in some studies), it should definitely be studied more, and people would be advised not to load their diet with TFAs, but a ban is little overboard.

I then went to the Harvard School of Public Health website, and they were more conclusive in their claims of connection between TFAs and heart disease, though it looked as if all their sources were also dated 1997 and earlier.

I think a better public policy would be to provide research money to discover a process that makes oil that is as stable as partially hydrogenated oil, but without the TFAs. On the Harvard Website, they suggested that this would not be too difficult. If this new process were then as cheap as the current process, then restaurants would have an incentive to change.

anyway, long comment. I'll stop

morgan said...

This is a very interesting conversation. In part this issue does seem to be a big media hype. Trans fats aren't good for you, but neither are a lot of things that are served in restaurants. I'm pretty sure that getting a triple layer chocolate cake will damage my health, but they haven't outlawed that. Yet. If they can ban trans fats because it damages our health, why don't they just pass laws that everyone has to eat organic food and that we can eat only very little red meat and sweets? Wouldn't that keep us all a lot healthier? That would be protecting us from ourselves, right? I mean, if we won't choose to eat healthy, then maybe the government has the responsibility to make us. Or, maybe they should just leave us alone. I think the government has the responsibility to protect our freedoms, not our health. They seem to be overstepping their bounds.

Cabeza said...

(In the spirit of Nick's post:) Well damn, I jumped on a bandwagon. While I apologize for my rash and under-informed diatribe of the negative effects of trans fatty acids, I stand by my dim view of them and my view of the role of government. No, the government should not tell us everything we can and can't do, but it should protect the public from the public. I don't mean watching each citizen put each spoonful of food into its mouth; I mean keeping tobacco companies from advertising that smoking aids digestion. I mean keeping shoe stores from using unshielded x-ray machines to show customers how well their shoes fit. I mean preventing food companies from using misleading labels to misinform the public on what a package contains. All of these are things that have gone on in the past. All of these are things that timely legislation has put an end to. I think that's the sign of a responsible government. To promote liberty while ignoring responsibility would be self-destructive.

Cabeza said...

Hey Jon, now write a dialectic debating California's proposed law against parents spanking their children.

Nick said...

oops, I didn't mean to suggest that governments shouldn't be in the business of protecting public health, especially from blatant lying in advertising. It just looked that this particular case was one of bad science reporting by the media that was jumped on by mayor bloomberg (and Jared. Bad Jared!) Unfortunately, bad science reporting is pervasive, and unlikely to change anytime soon given the nature of needing sensational reporting to get people's attention. Don't get me started on nuclear power and hydrogen vehicles.

JonnyF said...

I am not sure if this was evident in the original post, but I am against this.
I do agree that the ban is a less bad action of the government of NYC than, say, "creative" accounting, going bankrupt, or manufacturing condoms, which are all things which the NYC government has done or does now.
Now, Jared, regarding creating a moral society and protecting Americans from themselves. First, as far as morality goes, there is, sadly, rarely a consesus on what consitutes morality. For government to try to create a moral society it must hit a moving target (what's more, the people who are doing the aiming often have their own problems with extramarital affairs, corruption, etc.) As for protecting Americans from themselves, I just don't agree it's the government's role either. If we don't have faith that Americans will do what is in their own best interest, then the very foundations of republican democracy are in question.
Wow look at that rant. Maybe I am a Libertarian after all.
Anyway, I think a better solution would be to require warning labels on menus or something with a warning about the suspected danger of trans-fat.

Cabeza said...

The problem isn't trusting that Americans will do whatever is in their best interest. The problem is the fact that given the choice, Americans (or anyone for that matter) will do only what they see as their own interest. Unfettered liberty breeds selfishness. People vote themselves tax cuts or welfare increases without regards to how it affects others or society as a whole. The very foundation of republican democracy, as you correctly used the term, is the creation of a civil republic that will overcome the amoral tendencies of the empowered masses. That is one of the founding principles of the United States of America. Leaving people free to hurt each other in the name of self-interest is not an American virtue.

As far as the debate on morality goes, that's where liberty and the voice of the people comes in. The country was founded on Judeo-Christian virtues. The majority of the people held and continue to hold those virtues, and it is their duty to speak up. That is one reason why Tocqueville knew that political participation was vital to the survival of our system: as long as the morally grounded people kept the government in check, things would be alright. King Mosiah knew this about the people as well:

"Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.

"And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land" (Mosiah 29: 26-27).

It's our job (the People) to inform the government what is moral and right. We know. And when the time comes that we no longer know or no longer choose it, that's the end.

I think I learned my ranting skills from living with Jon.

Cabeza said...

One more clarification--

When I say protect Americans from themselves, I don't mean protecting Jon from Jon and Nick from Nick. I mean protecting Jon and Nick from Sam Walton, Ray Kroc, Michael Eisner, or whomever. Sorry I wasn't more clear on that.

JonnyF said...

I don't get it. Do you want the government to suppress the "tendencies of the amoral public" or do you want to have the "voice of the people" inform the government of what is right? I guess, the voice of the people needs to inform the government how to keep them (the people) in check (I guess "inform the government how to govern")? Okay, I'll buy that. But how do you keep the "amoral public" from the tendency of using the government as a tool to achieve their own selfish ends?

In order to really continue this discussion I need to:
1. Study up on the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, other documents associated with the founding, teachings of Joseph Smith, etc. Might as well throw in Locke, Hobbes, and a bucket full of other political philosophers.
2. Drive to Virginia so we can discuss this properly in person.

Cabeza said...

Mwa ha ha ha ha! You've dealt right into my ploy to draw you into a debate on the dual nature of man! Which is one of the debates that the Founders kept raging in their own hearts and passed on to the subsequent generations of Americans. The dichotomy you point out is an excellent and very real one. On the one hand, the People are a moral base of society, members of Rousseau's "Social Contract." On the other hand, we're incredibly selfish and seek only our own benefit, as represented in Locke's State of Nature. I agree that it would be beneficial to study up on Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, etc. It's also helpful to read what the Founders say about their ideas. Start with the Federalist Papers, or read the thoughts of two diametrically opposed Founders, say Jefferson and Adams, or Madison and Henry. Ours is a proud political and philosophical tradition: trying to strike a balance between man's good and evil natures.

As far as keeping the amoral masses from manipulating the government to their own ends, that's why the Founders chose a representational government rather than a direct democracy. They hated the idea of democracy. It was a cuss word to them. Representational government, however, was a happy medium. It's also interesting that the three branches are set up to be chosen three different ways. Each branch separates itself from the direct voice of the people in different ways. It's that way by design. But we can save the electoral college debate for another post. Back to the point, read Madison's Federalist No. 10 to see how he planned on keeping the masses (or the minorities) from too easily manipulating the government to their own ends. It's a relatively fast read.

This really has been a thrilling post. Best one in months!

JonnyF said...

I suppose we have digressed - discussing the role of a national government.
Anyway, where can I find out about this proposed ban on spanking you speak of?

Cabeza said...

Here's a link to a news story. There's a link to the actual text of the bill at the end: