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Standing Athwart History, Yelling ‘Trans Fats For Everyone!’

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Smoking is legal. Stuffing sugar down your gullet is legal. Participating in risky contact sports is legal. So is living a sexually promiscuous lifestyle. Drinking vodka grapefruits and playing Call of Duty all day, every day? Also legal.

All of these activities may hold negative externalities for society and significant health risks for individuals — some of them are even more consequential than occasionally ingesting partially hydrogenated oils, if you can believe it.

So when the Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) recently took the first step in eliminating trans fats from the food supply, it may have justified the ban by claiming that partially hydrogenated oils were no longer on the “generally recognized as safe” list, but it was just federalizing the sort of paternalistic micromanaging that big cities have been trying to implement for years. The thing is, the FDA, acting by fiat, is going to have a lot easier time being our mommy than any mayor.

The question you usually get in this debate goes something like this: Isn’t it government’s job to protect people from corporate malfeasance and dangerous products? Sure. But how far should government go to protect people from themselves? Trans fats are unhealthy, they aren’t hazardous. That’s a vital distinction that has been persistently muddled by groups that have spent decades trying to normalize the idea that someone else should be controlling what you eat. (Some of these same groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, pressured the industry to use trans fats as a healthier alternative in the first place.)

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, in fact, admits that the ban was necessary because “current intake remains a significant public health concern.” Confusing public health concerns and individual health concerns allows the FDA to ban virtually anything it desires. If it’s the intake that matters (and even the FDA doesn’t require trans fats to be identified on labels if .05 grams or less is used per serving) why Fig Newtons? Why not place limits on over-the-counter acetaminophen or appletinis? And why only certain components of food? Is it healthier for us to douse our fries in mayonnaise or enjoy microwavable popcorn once a week?

That’s not to say that trans fats aren’t bad news. They increase production of ‘bad’ cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. If you incessantly eat junk, chances are high that you’re going to pay. But the FDA claims that its reduction in unsaturated fat would prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths in the United States – which, like the countless other similar contentions, is preposterous at worst and guesswork at best. We have no clue how consumers will behave after a ban and we have no idea what foods will replace the old ones . And it is difficult to believe that one ingredient, rather than lifestyle choices broadly, is going to save so many. Alas, no researcher is going to spend the time and money to debunk the study. Whether it’s true or not, corporations aren’t going to bother putting up a fight defending an ingredient that is knocking off 7,000 innocent Americans every year. So, intellectually dishonest scaremongering has plenty of space.

Actually, these days, it’s the food control groups that really have sway. Activists like Marion Nestle and Michael Jacobson have long argued that the government should be empowered to dictate what you can eat. Only two months ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has a budget of around $100 million a year, launched a campaign to push the FDA to ban more ingredients on its “Generally Recognized as Safe” list. The FDA was quick to comply. And it’s just getting started. Trans fats is just a soft target, a test run.

As you know, free will dissipates in the presence of a Big Gulp or a television commercial for a sugary cereal. Sugar is as addictive like heroin. Salt, too. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a Harvard University epidemiologist and cardiologist, in a piece titled “Experts hope sugar, salt are next on FDA target list,” is quoted as saying, “sodium is next.” Mozaffarian makes sense. If the FDA can move on scientific consensus that supposedly proves partially hydrogenated oils are not only insalubrious, but a killer, what possible reason can it have not to move on salt? According to research recently presented at American Heart Association conference, eating too much salt has contributed to 2.3 million deaths from heart attacks worldwide, strokes and other heart-related diseases throughout 2010, representing 15 percent of all deaths due to these causes. CSPI estimates 150,000 lives could be saved if government “set gradually declining limits on the salt content of foods.”

The marketplace has plenty of low-fat and low-sodium choices available. And the market is already moving away from trans fats, as the Wall Street Journal notes:

Euromonitor International, a research firm, estimates that U.S. consumption of hydrogenated vegetable oils—a category that includes some fats that aren’t trans fats—will total 220,203 metric tons this year, down from 719,159 metric tons in 2000. The Grocery Manufacturers Association says that since 2005, food makers have lowered the amount of trans fat in their products more than 73%.

Like Big Soda, which has offered numerous healthier choices, fast food companies like McDonald’s and Taco Bell have dropped trans fats from many of their products. Because of the need numerous alternatives are in development. Dunkin’ Donuts was actually able to sell 50 million trans-fat free doughnuts before cluing in its customers — none of which noticed the change.

So what’s the big deal? Well, mostly it’s a visceral and idealistic reaction to government acting like a babysitter.  It’s the precedent. Not only is it arbitrary and intrusive, most of the time it is counterproductive and expensive. Next thing you know, Washington will be telling people people exactly what their health care insurance must look like.

And finally, a reactionary question: What if a consumer doesn’t care if a product is unhealthy?  What if a consumer is more concerned with his palate, convenience or cost ? Sometimes health advocates talk as if the Founders had decreed that all citizens must be  healthy and live to our optimal life expectancy. Maybe your pursuit of happiness is found at Five Guys. If, as many food nannies often argue, this is about the burden unhealthy Americans have on the health-care system, you have two few choices. You allow more flexibility in insurance pricing, putting more economic pressure on people to take care of themselves — and also accept that in a free country people do stupid things. Or you can take the coercive route.

Which way do you think we’re headed?

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.