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Trans fats: Yea or Nay?

We got talking in the office yesterday about the trans fat ban in California, recently passed by good old Arnold Schwarzenegger (this was after a breakfast of donuts, mind you, and a heated discussion on the topic of Sara's post yesterday,"fried on the inside.") The ban calls for trans fats to be phased out of restaurants by 2010 and bakeries by 2011 and brings to mind an important question: Can you legislate good health?


Somewhere out there, a hydrogenator sits idle.
photograph from bantransfats.com

There’s no doubt that trans fats aren’t very good for you. Partial hydrogenation is an industrial process that pumps hydrogen into liquid oil at a high temperature—it makes the resulting oil more solid, gives it a longer shelf and fry life (meaning you can fry with it longer) and gives baked goods the texture and mouth feel you’d get if you used, say, real butter, which is far more expensive. It was a mistake to embrace these fats in the first place (they were introduced as a low-cost and, believe it, healthier alternative to animal-derived fats), but embrace them we—or at least, manufacturers and restaurants and by proxy we—did.

I don’t advocate eating trans fats. I don’t advocate going to restaurants that use them. I don’t suggest eating those terrible shelf-stable muffins that are made with them. And while I will tell you that trans fat free Oreo cookies are not, despite what you may have heard, as good as the original, I know it’s for the best. Still, I bristle at the idea that the State of California will tell me what to eat. We’d all like to believe that it’s in our best interest, but there are lots of things that are in our “best interest” that are really no good at all, like our categorical ban on raw-milk cheese that has been aged less that 65 days. If I want to risk my health eating runny Camembert, that should be my choice.

Advocates for the ban claim the biggest groups of affected people are minors who choose foods with trans fats unknowingly, and though it’s tempting to think the parents should control what their kids eat, I recognize that as naïve. I believe kids should be protected from trans fats, which is why I’m glad they are already banned (along with junk food) in schools. But it also seems a little arbitrary, to be singling out trans fat as more harmful than anything else, more harmful than, say, high fructose corn syrup. Perhaps a better solution is more transparency—restaurants and manufacturers ought to be required to tell us what’s in our food, and then we, all of us, should be responsible for telling trans fat-using restaurants and manufacturers a polite “no thanks.”