Trans Fat Free at Last


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.