Obesity

Trans Fat Free at Last

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Just in time to stop New York and Chicago from banning trans fats in restaurant food (if politicians ever paid attention to the scientific evidence), the American Council on Science and Health has issued a characteristically measured report that puts the dangers of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in perspective. Among its major points:

The scientific rationale for limiting the consumption of TFAs [trans fatty acids] is related to effects on blood cholesterol levels, not effects on obesity. All types of fat are equally high in calories….

TFAs are one of several dietary factors that affect blood lipid levels, and blood lipid levels are one of several factors that influence the risk of heart disease…

Based on the effects of TFAs on lipid levels, it has been estimated that replacing all of the TFAs from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the U.S. diet with unsaturated fatty acids could lead to as much as a 3 to 6 percent reduction in heart disease risk. This value should be regarded only as a rough estimate because there are multiple sources of uncertainty in the data used to calculate it….

Overstating the health effects of TFAs is harmful to public health because it promotes an overemphasis on this single dietary factor as opposed to other aspects of diet, other risk factors for coronary heart disease, and other public health priorities. By drawing attention away from other, more significant health risks [such as smoking and high blood pressure], the current exaggerated focus on TFAs may actually cause more problems than it solves.

ACSH Executive Director Elizabeth Whelan notes that trans fats account for around 2 percent of calorie intake, vs. 10 to 15 percent for saturated fats. She worries that the misplaced focus on TFAs will mislead consumers into thinking that calorie-rich "trans-fat-free" products are healthy. And on a favorite theme of mine, she expresses concern about the tendency, illustrated by the proposed trans fat bans, to treat risky habits like contagious diseases, warning that "government intervention for chronic diseases, which are primarily linked to lifestyle factors, is intrusive and simply will not work."

The ACSH report is here, and Whelan's commentary is here.

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  1. “She worries that the misplaced focus on TFAs will mislead consumers into thinking that calorie-rich “trans-fat-free” products are healthy.”

    Are people really that stupid? And if they are, do we have any obligation to protect them from themselves?

  2. jb,

    yes,
    no.

  3. “And on a favorite theme of mine, she expresses concern about the tendency, illustrated by the proposed trans fat bans, to treat risky habits like contagious diseases, warning that “government intervention for chronic diseases, which are primarily linked to lifestyle factors, is intrusive and simply will not work.”

    Even if it did work, one of my favorite themes has to do with central planning and the American diet. What kind of paternalistic mindset is required to make decisions about other people’s food?

    …It’s like making decisions about what we watch on television.

  4. She worries that the misplaced focus on TFAs will mislead consumers into thinking that calorie-rich “trans-fat-free” products are healthy

    Isn’t that a different side of the same nanny coin?

  5. The real problem with all this is that Americans do not know what stuff made with real ingredients tastes like anymore.

    If I’m going to eat suff that’s bad for my heart and circulatory system it damn sure isn’t going to be a fargin’ Oreo.

  6. The biggest problem is that we have to pay for other people’s (poor) choices. We shouldn’t be forced to pay for others’ problems, rather than forcing them to limit their choice.

  7. If I’m going to eat suff that’s bad for my heart and circulatory system it damn sure isn’t going to be a fargin’ Oreo.

    I hear that TWC.

    …now what can the government do to improve the quality of wine in this country? Aren’t some antioxidants better than others?

  8. now what can the government do to improve the quality of wine in this country?

    Get rid of the sur-tax on alcohol?

  9. Get rid of the sur-tax on alcohol?

    On no. Let’s not go down this road. My heart is just recovering from the last discussion I had on Alcohol taxes. Search for “Johnstown Flood Tax”.

  10. At Christmas my mom makes these Swedish butter cookies that are like the Platonic Ideal of a cookie stuffed with icing. The filling is butter and sugar, the dough is butter, flour, and milk (I think, I don’t recall exactly). Awful for me? Oh hell yeah, but tasty as anything you can imagine.

  11. Isn’t that a different side of the same nanny coin?

    Potentially, but not necessarily.

    First of all, she’s not saying people should be sued for stressing the dangers of trans fat. Since she’s arguing against government action, I think her non-nanny credentials should at least be given the benefit of the doubt.

    Next, ideally those whom others trust about such matters should stress the unhealthiness of foods in the exact proportion to their importance to our health. Now, we don’t and never will live in an ideal world, and another “ideal” is that we’d all do the pertinent research to our personal satisfaction ourselves and not rely on “public officials”. But the world is as it is, and some folks get paid attention to for the noise they make rather than the knowledge they impart. So yes, going way overboard about dangers that are relatively minor can be a disservice to those getting the wrong impression. I remember people being leery of eating apples in the wake of the Alar scare and favoring foods that are much more carcinogenic, such as peanuts which contain aflatoxin. To the extent that one cares about the well being of strangers, wouldn’t one think that those who perpetrated the Alar did a disservice in this way?

    All that said, I can relate to the thinking that the way she put it is a little patronizing. Still, she may have a point.

  12. At Christmas my mom makes these Swedish butter cookies that are like the Platonic Ideal of a cookie stuffed with icing. The filling is butter and sugar, the dough is butter, flour, and milk (I think, I don’t recall exactly). Awful for me? Oh hell yeah, but tasty as anything you can imagine.

    A Thanksgiving favorite at our house is yams and apples. That might sound innocuous, but the recipe calls for them to be baked in a sauce made from nothing but butter and brown sugar (and a little cornstarch and water, for consistency).

    It’s basically carmeled yams and apples, and it’s far superior to the yams covered with trans-fat filled marshmellows.

  13. still she may have a point

    Fyoder, of course you’re right. Excuse my flippancy.

    RC & Ken: Right Arm!

  14. It is sad that lawsuits and bannings must be threatened before the public really gets this kind of information.

    If the big players were more upfront about negative nutritional information voluntarily, and as a matter of customer service, then the information about, say, especially unhealthy food ingredients could be presented in a fair and balanced way by industry spokesmen.

    Instead, a more passive approach is taken on the supply side. Customers have to get angry enough to bring a lawsuit or vigorous petition city council just to get information they want in a low transaction cost way. Only then does the supply side react (curiously by eliminating the ingredient rather than allowing it to be pointed out). It would have been nice if KFC had been seen as a leader in getting the word out, such as it is, on transfats, both so that the word is accurate and also so we know they care about their customers. In the short run that stings, but long-range I think it is a much better business strategy.

  15. Also, Oreo should have long ago started making a transfat version and a nontransfat version of each of its products. KFC should have allowed each of its outlets to be transfat or nontransfat, and then differentiating them to give that choice to the public. Consumer choice is not an ultra vires act.

  16. My favorite is when a 5 pound bag a sugar has written on it “FAT FREE FOOD”!

  17. “It’s basically carmeled yams and apples, and it’s far superior to the yams covered with trans-fat filled marshmellows.”

    Marshmallows are fat-free, ding-dong, so go find another reason to hate on marshmallows. Marshmallows are usually made of sucrose, corn syrup and egg whites, or sugar, corn syrup and gelatin.

  18. Actually Patrick, I am not sure they have any sucrose or sugar in them anymore. maybe I will take a look on my lunch hour. We went through a similar inquiry with Fluff a few months back here at HnR, and the result of that investigation was that it has all been HFCS (high fructose) for a long time now. sadly, Kraft does not seem to list ingredients of their foods on the Internet for whatever reason (take note, Greek chorus who sings: “all that information is already easily available.”).

    I think the Coke ingredients list has been interesting in its evolution over the past couple years:

    2004: carbonated water, HFCS, caramel color . . .

    2005: carbonated water, fructose / sucrose, caramel color . . .

    yesterday at my local store: water, sucrose, fructose / sucrose, caramel color . . .

    What will we have in 2007? Passover Coke at last?

  19. whhops, I meant:

    –yesterday at my local store: water, sugar, fructose / sucrose, caramel color . . .–

  20. “Actually Patrick, I am not sure they have any sucrose or sugar in them anymore. maybe I will take a look on my lunch hour. We went through a similar inquiry with Fluff a few months back here at HnR, and the result of that investigation was that it has all been HFCS (high fructose) for a long time now. sadly, Kraft does not seem to list ingredients of their foods on the Internet for whatever reason (take note, Greek chorus who sings: “all that information is already easily available.”).”

    Maybe I possess superhuman Google skills, but it took me all of about 30 seconds to find the ingredients in Kraft Jet Puffed marshmallows on the Kraftfoods.com website. The ingredients are listed as follows:

    INGREDIENTS: corn syrup, sugar, dextrose, food starch – modified (corn), water, gelatin, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, artificial and natural flavor, artificial color (blue 1).

    http://www.kraftfoods.com/jetpuffed/jp_nutr_marsh.html

    The ingredients list corn syrup, but don’t specify is it is the higher-fructose variety. And of course that wouldn’t matter much anyway, since HFCS only has about as much fructose and does good, old-fashioned sucrose.

  21. Maybe I possess superhuman Google skills, but it took me all of about 30 seconds to find the ingredients in Kraft Jet Puffed marshmallows on the Kraftfoods.com website.

    Yeah, I made the mistake of going to the Kraft foods home page and trying to find a path from there. that was a mistake (try it yourself if you don’t believe me).

    I guess the question now is: how much more corn syrup than sucrose do Jet Puffed marshmallows have, what is the proportion? that would be nice infor for Kraft to voluntarily give its customers, I think.

  22. “Yeah, I made the mistake of going to the Kraft foods home page and trying to find a path from there. that was a mistake (try it yourself if you don’t believe me).”

    I did try it, and it turn out that the information is exceedingly easy to find. Don’t know how you managed to miss it.

    1. Google search for Kraft. The first return is Kraftfoods.com. Click it.

    2. At the top right corner of the Kraft Foods page is the word PRODUCTS. Click it.

    3. On the middle of the product info page is a search field, and a drop-down menu, above which is the following text:

    “Find nutritional information and ingredients for your favorite Kraft product. Enter the product name or UPC code, or use the pull down menu below.”

    4. Scroll down the drop-down menu to Jet-Puffed, and click OK. This will generate a list of all the Jet-Puffed products, including pictures of each product. Click on the one you want nutrition info for, and you will get the ingredients and nutrition info label for that product.

  23. “I guess the question now is: how much more corn syrup than sucrose do Jet Puffed marshmallows have, what is the proportion? that would be nice infor for Kraft to voluntarily give its customers, I think.”

    I’ve asked question like this many times. For instance, I asked Karo about the relative proportions of glucose monomers to glucose polymers like maltose and maltotriose. I was curious because I wanted to know how complete the hydrolysis of starch was in the production of corn syrup. Anyway, the answer is invariably that the precise proportions are a trade secret, and are not something they’re going to tell Joe Blow, man-on-the-street, curious food guy.

  24. ,em>Anyway, the answer is invariably that the precise proportions are a trade secret, and are not something they’re going to tell Joe Blow, man-on-the-street, curious food guy.

    unless and until the regulators force them to, and they probably should. they used to say the same thing about ingredient lists and calorie counts, but really the regulation was a boon on those things. As consumers become more sophisticated, they need more info, phoney-baloney trade secrets be darned!

  25. “unless and until the regulators force them to, and they probably should. they used to say the same thing about ingredient lists and calorie counts, but really the regulation was a boon on those things. As consumers become more sophisticated, they need more info, phoney-baloney trade secrets be darned!”

    I’m not sure why you think the government should force food manufacturers to disclose not merely ingredient and nutrition information, but precise proportions, or why you think these are phoney-baloney trade secrets as opposed to actual, real trade secrets, but I’m pretty sure that this will never happen. It certainly will not happen without a modification of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. As it stands now, manufactuers do not even have to list all of he ingredients they use, for instance the flavorings.

  26. And just out of curiosity, what would be the utility of knowing the precise proportion of corn syrup to sucrose in marshmallows? What would be the consumer interest served by forcing such disclosures?

  27. Some consumers, myself included, believe that corn syrup is more harmful than sugar and prefer to eat sugar to corn syrup at the margin.

    From your comments above, I presume that you do not agree that there is a metabolic distinction, and I am not going to try to talk you into that. However, my belief is that this information should be readily available so that customers themselves can better decide what they want to ingest and in what proportions. I think this information shoul be available for basically the same reasons that ingredient lists themselves are required to be printed. Forcing mfgrs to point ingredient lists is something that I consider to be a wildly successful and useful type of government regulation of business.

    Looking at the other side of the coin, I think the trade secrets argument is bogus, as is the argument that KFC doesn’t have enuf wall space to print everything I want printed. the question you were asking does sound like it may be a bona fide trade secret, and not information that consumers would consider relevant, but I don’t understand enough about your more arcane questions to really pass judgement on whether you should be able to get the answer you were seeking or not.

  28. Also, I did not say “precise.” I have not thought about what type of precision should be required beyond the fact that there should be more precision than the present system (ingredient ordering by mass) requires.

  29. I have an out-of-curiosity question or 2 for you, Patrick:

    1. Why do you think Coke’s ingredient list is changing these days?

    2. Given that sucrose and sugar are becoming more prominent in the list, and further given the fact that consumers who express a preference (at least at HnR) seem to prefer sugar to corn syrup, why is this change not being shouted from the rooftops in Coke ads?

  30. And just out of curiosity, what would be the utility of knowing the precise proportion of corn syrup to sucrose in marshmallows? What would be the consumer interest served by forcing such disclosures?

    An even better answer: there is a taste difference. You can argue that there is no diabetes-risk difference, but it is not just crazee Sam Franklin who thinks there is a taste difference between corn syrup dominated products and sugar dominated products. So that is another reason to give consumers this info.

  31. I can’t taste the difference between Passover Coke & regular Coke, and I tried good & hard, and I’ve been a Cokaholic since Daddy mixed it in my baby baba, so I oughta know.

  32. I can’t taste the difference between Passover Coke & regular Coke, and I tried good & hard, and I’ve been a Cokaholic since Daddy mixed it in my baby baba, so I oughta know.

    Can you distinguish Coke and Pepsi in a blind taste test?

  33. Coke vs. Pepsi, easily. Or either vs. Royal Crown.

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