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POV: Banning Trans Fats Is Just the Beginning

A good first step in a long, hard journey

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An open letter to the Food and Drug Administration:

Thank you, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for protecting the food supply in the United States by proposing to ban partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs), from which come trans fats. Of course, this is only one step in the long journey towards making the food supply generally safe. Because research has shown that PHOs are a poison, the FDA has an obligation to declare that they should be removed from all processed foods. Some manufacturers and restaurants have already removed or reduced trans fats in the products and foods they sell.

What foods still have PHOs? Well, Oreos do not—since 2006. (But Oreos are still not good for you; more on this later.) There are still PHOs in many other cookies, cakes, and baked processed goods, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, and ready-to-use frostings. In other words, most of the foods that children love and that parents tend to give to their children for nourishment and for “fun.”

You might ask the FDA, “Why did you target just PHOs?” They would say, “We cannot target everything.”

My 13-year-old son now understands that processed foods and candy are not good for you. He refused to go trick-or-treating this Halloween. He doesn’t quite understand trans fats, however. So we still need to protect children against an additive that clogs your arteries worse than saturated fat does. The good news is that we are in the process of raising a generation of children who will reject the nonfood poisons that we have been feeding them and ourselves for the past 40 years. Thank heaven for little boys and girls.

However, there are many children before that age of reason and understanding who cannot make their own choices about foods and who have been fed Oreos (including before Nabisco removed trans fats) every day. Plus there are children who drink lots of sugar-sweetened beverages and develop obesity and inflammation—even though there are no trans fats in those beverages. There is much more work to do to make our food supply safe, unfortunately. The next target? Let’s make it sugar-sweetened beverages, which have absolutely no nutritive benefit beyond a lot of sugar calories, which you might need if you are running a marathon.

After we tackle that one? The going gets tougher because everyone likes a sweet now and then. We cannot ban all sweets and processed foods. We will need to become more creative and try perhaps to fortify foods with nutritive value, while lowering the sugar and salt content of many currently available foods. The FDA is attempting to do this with salt in processed foods. The time has come to attempt this with sweets and other processed desserts like cakes, cookies, frostings, shakes, and so forth. Our palates will change eventually. I would recommend lowering sugar content, just as we are targeting salt content in foods, gradually over a 10-year period.

I run the Boston Medical Center Weight Management Center, where we see 500 patients each month for obesity, type II diabetes, and other comorbidities related to obesity. Many of these patients are of limited means and cannot afford to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein on a daily basis. We have a food pantry and food demonstration kitchen; BMC is the only hospital in the country with such a setup. Most of our food pantry clients are overweight or obese. They are food-insecure, uncertain of where their future meals will come from. We need to provide better food choices that they can afford if we want to ensure that our country’s children grow up to their full potential. It is a matter of political and social interest on many levels.

May the FDA continue to do its job to protect our food supply and country.

Caroline Apovian, a School of Medicine professor of medicine, can be reached at Caroline.Apovian@bmc.org.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

23 Comments

23 Comments on POV: Banning Trans Fats Is Just the Beginning

  • Bradford Towne, DMD on 11.15.2013 at 5:49 am

    “Big Brother” at it again. When will we recognize the insidious way that government is ever so slowly infiltrating every aspect of our lives, gradually denying us our basic human right of free choice. Why do the FDA and it’s supporters spend so much time trying to control our diet yet have all but given up the fight against the tobacco industry. One reason is that banning tobacco products would be a major revenue loss where as going after the food industry is a easier target because there is no direct revenue stream benefitting government. Going after “sugar” is really about imposing control over another human being. As long as human’s have freedom of thought, freedom of expression, we have no more right to tell someone they cannot have sugar
    than we have the right to tell someone they cannot smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, have sex with whom ever they choose, ride a bicycle without a helmet and so many other risky behaviors. Where is it going to stop! Welcome to 1984!

    • nick on 11.15.2013 at 1:44 pm

      If they don’t have a right to tell me to smoke, drink, wear no helmet.. then it’s no different to say ALL drugs should be legal. I should be able to take in any drug I want.. but that’s not going to happen. The reason it is good to ban trans fats is because the SOLE purpose they serve is to make corporations richer by extending the shelf life of foods. Most people don’t even know what they are ingesting. There’s a laundry list of other unnatural ingredients that should be banned for serving no purpose at all

    • Dan Cusher on 11.15.2013 at 2:03 pm

      First of all, the FDA does not regulate tobacco in any way at all – the ATF does. Congress made that decision and the FDA has absolutely no say in it. You, as a surgeon, ought understand a bit more about how drug regulation works in this country. If the FDA were to make a decision on tobacco, it would be an instant Schedule I, right up there with heroin and cocaine.

      Furthermore, no one is “denying us our basic human right of free choice.” You can make your own trans fats (you took organic chemistry) and eat all you want! No one is proposing taking granulated sugar off the shelves – you can eat it by the pound if you want. The problem is that people are not able to make INFORMED decisions about these things, because they are not informed! Anyone who knows the truth about trans fats would NEVER eat them! You might say it would be better to teach everyone that trans fats are bad and then let them choose…but what about other harmful chemicals? Should we allow ANYTHING in food, and people should educate themselves about EVERYTHING that could be there? That’s overwhelming – it’s not practically possible. The alternative is to short circuit the OBVIOUS choices by having the FDA (and other regulatory agencies) make them for everyone, saving all of us the need to learn about countless harmful chemicals. For example, it’s not feasible for every citizen to inspect every food company to make sure their nutrition labels are accurate; having an agency do that work for everyone is the ONLY way to make our way of life possible. Sometimes they overreach, but usually they get it right, like this time.

      You say: “We have no more right to tell someone they cannot have sugar than we have the right to tell someone they cannot smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, have sex with whom ever they choose, ride a bicycle without a helmet and so many other risky behaviors.” So now you support the tobacco industry? Earlier you were saying the FDA needs to go after them! Also, we don’t let people “have sex with whom ever they choose”; you’re NOT allowed to have sex with children, animals, or anyone who does not consent to it…so there is regulation. We also restrict tobacco and alcohol by age – are you saying we should let kids smoke and drink? Do heroin and cocaine fit under your description of “so many other risky behaviors”? Are you saying we should let kids do heroin and cocaine? If so, you should never have been allowed into dental school in the first place, based on a total lack of ethics.

      • Nanny State on 11.15.2013 at 3:59 pm

        Are you saying kids are not doing heroin and cocaine because of all our warnings and laws prohibiting them from doing so? Because if you are you haver made a type one statistical error. Do you think prohibiting a behavior does not have unintended consequences, such as creating a black market or giving rise to violent crime?

        I may be wrong but I cannot help but wonder if you are a dyed in the wool logical positivist who still rejects the notion that scientific studies can be biased by the investigator.

        Give it up, the war is over. We now need to move toward more liberty and to forget about trying to change people via government regulation for this is not the purview of us mere mortals.

      • Bradford Towne, DMD on 11.15.2013 at 4:13 pm

        You make good micro arguments but miss the big picture as so many advocates of more and more government control over our lives do all the time. This is about freedom of choice. I find it so interesting that you wish to give up so much of your life to government control. You are right that ATF currently controls distribution of and federal taxation of tobacco and alcohol. Tha federal government does such a good job at taking care of us, that it gives millions of dollars in subsidies to the tobacco industry. Someone below accurately stated that this is about amount of consumption. All those activities I mentioned are regulated by limitation not out right bans. Last time I checked, trans fats are not poisons, maybe not as healthy as other fats bu not poisons. You say they are used by greedy corporations to extend shelf life for to line there own pockets. I would argue that additives help reduce cost of production, reduce wasted food. Granted additives need adequate investigation but should not be outlawed. Low cost food as the saying goes is better than no food at all. Many places in the world do not have the resources available to maintain the environment necessary to preserve “all natural, no additive foods”. Just so you know exactly where I stand, I support the manufacture and production of genetically modified foods too!
        Your personal attack on my ethics is repulsive! Just because I disagree with your misguided beliefs does not allow you to personally attack me. You are the one who needs to grow up and disagree with maturity not childish personal attacks!

        • Dan Cusher on 11.18.2013 at 5:33 pm

          “This is about freedom of choice.” No, it’s about public safety. In psychology, there is a large body of literature on the science of how people make choices, and there are some situations when people consistently make totally irrational decisions. Addiction is one of them, which is why tobacco should be outlawed. I agree with you that the way our government regulates tobacco is horrendous, but that’s not proof that it can’t be done well! Nutrition is another of those areas, and the government can help by removing the options that are so bad that no one would choose them if s/he were fully informed and thinking rationally.

          “This is about amount of consumption.” Many things are; this is not. There is no amount of tobacco that is healthy. There is no amount of added trans fats that is healthy. To be more precise, trans fats actually occur in trace amounts in nature, but there is no amount that is both low enough to be healthy and high enough to have the benefit of extending shelf life. If there were such a happy medium, I would agree with you that a limit would be appropriate, and that a ban would be overreaching.

          “You say they are used by greedy corporations to extend shelf life for to line there own pockets. I would argue that additives help reduce cost of production, reduce wasted food.” I didn’t say that. I’m sure others here have – it sounds like a pretty typical liberal thing to say. I don’t think of corporations as having human qualities such as greed or morals. They do what will be best for their profits, whether that’s using unhealthy additives (thereby reducing costs and reducing wasted food) or giving money to charity (thereby improving their image and the morale of their employees). Corporations do a lot of great things, offering a lot of great products and services, and we couldn’t have our way of life without them. But they don’t have morals and need regulations to keep them from heading down bad paths. The regulations IDEALLY should do only that, but I concede that they also often restrict the good that corporations can do, or just restrict in some irrelevant way that only reduces freedom and doesn’t fix anything. Yes, that sometimes happens and it should be undone, or better yet, prevented. But this is NOT one of those cases! You are painting a black and white picture of government regulation always overreaching and always stifling free choice. I’m saying that the issue is much more complex than that, and in this case (and many others) the regulation is an overall good.

          “Just so you know exactly where I stand, I support the manufacture and production of genetically modified foods too!” Yeah, same here…if it’s done responsibly and not in a way that manipulates farmers or consumers, or harms the environment. Unfortunately that’s being done quite a lot. Even more unfortunately, it causes people just like you – but with opposite political beliefs – to demand that all genetically modified foods be outlawed. They see no gray area. They see that the way it’s done now is bad, and they assume there is no good way to do it. With good regulations, GMOs could be a powerful weapon against hunger. With bad regulations, which is the state they’re in now, they’re just a disaster.

          “You are the one who needs to grow up and disagree with maturity not childish personal attacks!” Honestly, you deserved it. Your first comment was just plain ridiculous – chock-full of Fox News style doomsday lingo and such. For example: “When will we recognize the insidious way that government is ever so slowly infiltrating every aspect of our lives, gradually denying us our basic human right of free choice.” Or: “Going after ‘sugar’ is really about imposing control over another human being.” That’s just nuts! You sound like a genuine conspiracy theorist! Your second comment was much more reasonable and shows that you were just being hyperbolic the first time, but if you’re going to throw around such crazy-talk, I’ll respond to you like you’re crazy!

  • Nanny State on 11.15.2013 at 8:08 am

    Great idea. Let’s ban dancing next!

    • footloose on 11.17.2013 at 6:00 pm

      That won’t ever happen, as long as Kevin Bacon is alive.

  • Nanny State on 11.15.2013 at 8:16 am

    One more step toward the nanny state taking personal responsibility away from the people. “May the FDA continue to do its job” and tell us what to eat, EPA tell us how to cook and heat our homes; and the BATFE tell us what to drink and smoke because we are just too stupid to think for ourselves. All hail the government! Of course not long ago we were being told to eat more margarin instead of butter. The same government told us for years how dangerous marijuana was. But I digress.

    I am sure there are some here who think we also need more overzealous social meddlers like Mike Bloomberg telling what to eat and drink too but frankly I think this is a pathetic and dangerous trend.

    All that said can I interest you in serving of Soylent Green? Its government approved!!

  • Cris Nigro on 11.15.2013 at 9:13 am

    Love this article. Agree.

  • Nancy Ahern on 11.15.2013 at 9:22 am

    Caroline,
    I fully support your ideas and applaud your thoughtful letter to the FDA.

  • Amod Lele on 11.15.2013 at 9:25 am

    This is where the Tea Party comes from. It makes it a lot harder for government to help enlarge the choices of the disadvantaged when government gets associated with reducing the choices of everyone.

  • John Doe on 11.15.2013 at 9:29 am

    I have to say, if there is an alternative to trans fats that can produce the same results without being AS dangerous to health then that substitution should be made.

    I’m all for freedom of choice, but if we know something is seriously dangerous to a person’s health then I am perfectly fine with the regulation of it. You can smoke if you want to, but you can’t give a child a cigarette. If we know this product can seriously endanger the life of a child (in a long term way like smoking) then shouldn’t it be regulated?

    I think banning might be a misstep though. Education about the dangers of products impacts their use. Smoking awareness/anti-smoking campaigns have helped reduce the number of smokers in a just a few generations. People should have the right to choose these products if they want to, just like I can go drink, smoke, skydive, fly, drink coffee, eat red meat, and swim in the ocean. Life is about taking risks, but people should know the facts.

  • Richard on 11.15.2013 at 9:31 am

    Good Article! Maybe some of the people posting negative comments will actually have a valid point, once there is enough low-cost and readily available healthy food to balance out the choices a little bit.

    Right now, our freedom to good health is being taken away by many greedy corporations who pump cheap and addictive additives into our food – which many of the genearal public are still unaware of. Nice work.

    • Nanny State on 11.15.2013 at 1:21 pm

      And how did those greedy corporations get to be so rich and powerful? No one ever forced you to spend your hard on money on their products did they? It seems to me that it was your choice and now you want to blame them for victimizing you. You poor baby! Do you want a hug from the nanny state?

      • Student on 11.17.2013 at 12:58 pm

        The point being made is that, for many people, there are no alternatives to the additive laced products. No one is ‘forced’ to spend money on these products, but they are often much cheaper than healthy foods. The result is that the working poor and “food insecure” default to purchasing terrible foods simply to subsist.

        It’s not a matter of people wanting the government to make choices for them so much as they want businesses to be open and honest about why thier products are “magically” cheaper. Especially when the “magic” kills consumers.

  • Jack on 11.15.2013 at 9:47 am

    Why not adequately fund, and impose higher standards upon health/nutrition education curriculums in public schools? Why not simply equip people with the information they need to make an informed choice rather than divest our citizens of the choice to decide their diets for themselves?

    Yes, those who are most impacted by the consumption of these poisons are disproportionately found in low-income communities, and I’d argue that we do have a civic obligation to provide adequate food and nutrition services to these communities. But, by that does not necessarily mean we should impose strict, federal bans on an entire categories of food. Why not expand federally subsidized supplemental nutrition services and food vouchers by building more facilities that are better equipped to serve the populations that they are designed for?

    Oh right, the military defense budget.

    • Nanny State on 11.15.2013 at 1:24 pm

      Because that would empower the currently less educated people who would eventually realize they do not really need the nanny state. The government cannot allow that to ever happen lest it risk losing control of the surfs. Better to dummy them all down and let big government come to their rescue.

  • A Trumpeter of Reson on 11.15.2013 at 11:03 am

    When reform and desirable changes are concerned there are two general choices to be made. One choice is to opt for conditions that facilitate true individual growth and allowing the consequences of any successes to flow outward. The other choice is to deal increasingly with systems, governments, regulations, etc. — make adjustment (rules/laws) with things outside man. This is done with the hope that, somehow, changing the external scenery will change the inside man. I have yet to see the second choice be effective or as-effective or long-lasting as the first. The problem I see everyday is that the second choice is the go-to solution. The first choice is rarely mentioned because of the apparent difficulty and lack of faith in their fellowmen by the decriers.

  • Kostas P on 11.15.2013 at 1:48 pm

    If you want people to become healthier, you educate them so they can make the healthy choice by themselves. Banning all unhealthy foods so that people have no other alternative but to eat healthy is the most stupid way of going against obesity.
    Correct me If I’m wrong but last time I checked we had freedom.

  • Eric on 11.15.2013 at 1:59 pm

    There is nothing wrong with any of these things if consumed in reasonable amounts. A single cigarette never killed anyone, its the 4-pack a day habit. Likewise with French fries, oreos, coffee or what-have-you. The problem is undisciplined consumption.

  • Beatrice on 11.15.2013 at 5:30 pm

    Well of course simply banning PHOs is not going to be a panacea for the obesity epidemic, hence the title. I do however think it is a step in the right direction. Who wants poison in their food?

  • Anton on 11.18.2013 at 10:20 am

    Banning transfat is good idea. Same as forbidding artificial taste enhancers , artificial coloring, artificial sweetening and preservatives. They are all poisons/cancerogenes, while sugar by itself is not. Targeting sugar may prove be as stupid and destructive as banning raw milk. Want make you children healthier go after pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, arsenic.

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