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November 15, 2013

Trans fats won't be missed in our food

The Daily Star
The Daily Star

---- — Almost every official who has tried changing the regulation of food and drinks in recent years has faced an immediate, visceral backlash. This has been especially true for outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But the federal Food and Drug Administration’s proposed ban on trans fats — a move for which Bloomberg has eagerly taken credit — is a wise decision that should yield significant benefits to public health while ruffling relatively few feathers.

The nutrition of trans fats have been debated ever since they were invented in the 19th century by chemists who discovered that hydrogen could be used to solidify liquid fats. In 1884, the state of New York even passed a ban on margarine (the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the law).

Even today, few will argue that trans fats can be defended on grounds of taste or nutrition. In moving to cut them from its “generally recognized as safe” foods list, the FDA cited studies showing trans fats raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol and offer “no known health benefit.”

Concerns about whether the elimination of trans fats would affect taste have proven groundless too, since trans fats are tasteless, anyway. After quietly eliminating trans fats in 2003, Dunkin’ Donuts revealed that it had sold 50 million reformulated donuts before announcing the change without anyone noticing. McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King also got rid of trans fats without even being asked — and without any customers complaining.

“I don’t think it’s really a taste issue,” former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said recently to CNN. “It was cheaper for the food companies to do this over the years. But now, most of the science says we ought to get it out of the food supply.”

Since critical health studies and corporate phase-outs of trans fats have been around for more than a decade, it’s a bit of a stretch to give Bloomberg credit for the FDA’s proposed ban. Of course, that didn’t stop Bloomberg spokeswoman Samantha Levine last week from proudly declaring: “New York City deserves a great deal of credit for this.”

Sure, the Centers for Disease control is now run by Bloomberg’s first health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, and Bloomberg’s 2006 trans-fat ban probably expedited the change by turning New York City into one big market for trans-fat alternatives.

But if Bloomberg wants to take credit for every advance made in public health, then he deserves some blame, too, for the general backlash against food-safety efforts that his occasionally overzealous stances have provoked.

While his intentions are undoubtedly good, Bloomberg’s approach has too often been tin-eared. He would do well to heed the words of Harry Truman, who said “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”