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Economy, Regs, & Taxes

A Short History of the Trans Fats Witch Hunt

The government treats Americans like a group of children who don't know when to put down the donuts.

Jim Harrington · Jun. 17, 2015

In the year 1975, a mother was likely to give her children a snack with trans fats in it. Those fats were considered healthier, the benefits of nutritional innovation. Fast-forward 40 years and America considers trans fats a pariah and a substance that directly leads to heart disease.

Last week Mommy Government decided that no level of trans fat is healthful in the American diet. It therefore completely banned the substance by 2018 so that you’ll have one less danger stalking you.

In banning a certain ingredient from food, the government assumes too much responsibility over Americans’ lives. David Harsanyi points out that the government’s justification that the ban prevents heart disease could justify a battery of bans — including on alcohol and cigarettes. Instead, big-government social engineering must decide what we consume — even if its groupthink may be wrong.

Trans fats can be found in fried foods, margarine and commercial baked goods. They are manufactured fats that take saturated fats and stabilize the substance through a process called hydrogenation.

Trans fats were initially developed in Germany and later went into large-scale production in England. In 1909, Proctor and Gamble bought the rights for the U.S. market, and their first product, a partly hydrogenated cottonseed oil used as shortening, was named Crisco.

Products using trans fats quickly became popular. During World War II, when dairy products were scarce, margarine took the place of butter. Trans fats also found uses as preservatives and for improving products’ texture. In the 1960s the government and scientists both recommended using them in food preparation rather than saturated fats such as lard and butter. Of course, cigarettes were being advertised as a boon to your health, too.

The Atlantic points out, “A 1961 Time magazine article that railed against the dangers of saturated fat (found in meat and dairy products), and … consumers began to view margarine and shortening as healthier alternatives.”

“In the 1980s,” the Atlantic continues, “some scientists began to associate heart disease with saturated fats, and in response, groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Heart Savers Association … began to hound manufacturers [to stop] poisoning America … by using saturated fats… In 1990, a New York Times food writer said CSPI’s campaign prompted fast-food chains to ‘slim down’ by switching to frying in shortening.”

Activists got their wish. Low fat became de rigueur in restaurants and among “health-conscious” people. Fat was out. Chicken breast was in. And those of us who revel in our Royale with cheese and a good donut or two have become politically incorrect.

But a funny thing happened. In the late 1980s, just as Al Gore was warming up, scientific “consensus” began to shift away from trans fats. A decade later, healthy food activists were saying the fats contributed to clogged arteries. Indeed, they may be a more insidious threat than saturated fats, they said.

Ironically, as The Atlantic reported, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the organization that initially lobbied for the wide use of trans fats, turned around and told the FDA to add warning labels to any food that contained them. In 2006, the FDA required companies to label their products with the quantity of trans fats they contain and include a warning that no amount of trans fat is safe. Enjoy your meal.

This comes at a time when the average consumption of trans fats has dropped 80% in the last decade. The FDA was issuing its warnings, and people were making their own decisions about their diets.

Large food companies have already started to make the switch to other kinds of oils, but smaller businesses likely still have a stock of trans fat products. With rent, wages, taxes and now additional regulation, it doesn’t make sense to get rid of them any sooner than necessary.

Once again we see the absurd spectacle of a government treating its citizens like infants. Not only are we regulated beyond absurdity, the rules also change every generation or so. Who are these people who spend their careers writing these preposterous warnings for the “children” who work at real jobs and pay their salaries?

Adding injury to insult, now that time has passed in which “grave damage” has been visited upon millions of victims of trans fats by manufacturers that knew all along they were poison, the wolves are coming out of the woods. Personal injury lawyers are lining up to go after the deep and not so deep pockets of firms that produced an entirely legal product. Not to mention compliance costs are an economic killer.

As long as the government is allowed to treat citizens as infants — a situation with which far too many are comfortable — regulations will continue getting more ridiculous and more expensive for everyone. Is it too much to tell the government to start treating Americans like a group of adults?

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