Fat Nazis

No. I don’t mean Herman Göring, the fattest Nazi I can imagine.

No I mean those people in New York and other places starting to wage a war on one of the invisible problems with western diets. In an article yesterday, William Saletan talked about the looming ban of trans-fats in New York.

Put your hands in the air, and step away from the cookie.

That’s the message from New York City, where the health department has just ordered the city’s 25,000 restaurants to purge nearly all trans fats from their menus. Restaurant owners are terrified that other cities will follow. In the dough business, like show business, New York leads the way. If you can’t bake it there, you can’t bake it anywhere.

The whole world is engulfed in a war on fat. On one side are health crusaders. On the other side are food sellers and libertarians. Lately, the health costs of obesity have prodded politicians into the war, shifting the balance of power to the crusaders. Still, Americans draw the line at food. You stamped out our cigarettes, you made us wear seat belts, but you’ll get our burgers when you pry them from our cold, dead hands.

At steak stake here are the recipes of approximately 7500 restaurants in New York City. More specifically the regulations won’t completely ban trans-fats, but the amount of trans-fat will be limited. The New York Times coverage from September says a little more about the details of the ban.

The New York prohibition would affect the city’s entire restaurant industry, by far the nation’s largest, from McDonald’s to fashionable bistros to street corner takeouts across the five boroughs.

The city would set a limit of a half-gram of artificial trans fats per serving of any menu item, sharply reducing most customers’ intake. The fats are commonly found in baked goods, like doughnuts and cakes, as well as breads and salad dressing.

Officials said that the typical American diet now contains 5.8 grams of trans fats per day, and that a single five-ounce serving of French fries at many restaurants contained 8 grams of trans fats.

The restaurant owners seem to think that the city is overstepping its bounds. But it’s the lobbyists from the insurance industry that are putting pressure on the politicians to do something. It’s not like the city didn’t ask nicely back in 2005. They tried to retrain restaurant owners. The owners pushed back, the lobbyists pushed harder. The lobbyists are winning. In the Times article one health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden commented, “Like lead paint, artificial trans fat in food is invisible and dangerous, and it can be replaced.”

Libertarians will claim that people concerned about fats won’t go to fatty restaurants. Let the market decide. This is just the first step on a long war on food. Libertarians want the market to decide. Dear libertarians, the market is deciding. William Saletan gets back to the heart of the issue.

From a libertarian standpoint, the danger is that trans fats, having been targeted because, in some ways, they’re not food, will lay the groundwork for more dietary regulation because, in other ways, they are. Once you’ve banned one kind of fat, it’s easier to tackle another. You start with the argument health crusaders used in Chicago: You’re doing it to help parents protect kids. Then you try the maneuver they used in New York: quantifying now many lives you’ll save. Purging trans fats in New York would save at least 500 lives a year and possibly 1,400, said the health department. That’s more than the number saved by seat belts.

So, what do we have here? Is this a case of ‘You came for my cigarettes and I didn’t say anything, you came for my trans-fats and I didn’t say anything…?” I don’t think so.

This is a case of industrial ‘traditions’ being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21th century. Trans-fats aren’t as necessary as they were 30 years ago when they replaced hydrogenated fats made from liquid oils. One of the big defenders of trans-fats is McDonalds. They claim their French Fries will no longer taste the same. The problem is, after 6 months no one would know. Indeed, as Saletan mentions, McDonalds in Denmark no longer use trans-fats because they are basically illegal in that country of windmills and herring. One wonders if a quiet changeover, simply replacing one fat for another would do the trick. Then do the marketing blitz after the fact – “Look how healthy we are!” Of course after a showy start, McDonalds has slowly been removing healthy items from the menu here in Germany simply because no one bought them. After all, who goes to McDonalds for health food?

Many products are sweetened to improve saleability, done because it is the only way to stay competitive. Whether an all-out ban or simply an increased tax on items using calorific and unhealthy additives to increase sales is the appropriate method is something economists should discuss. New York will be an excellent test case. There are enough people in New York that should trans-fats be one of the major culprits behind heart disease, a change should be noticeable. Then it won’t be the politicians who act first, it will be the lobbyists from the insurance companies. Trying to lower costs while keeping premiums at – well – a premium.

For a strange reason, I have had a lot of health – cholesterol related posts lately. I have repeatedly hammered on the idea of lifestyle change. This is a perfect example of the kind of change I think is necessary. If industry could cut the number of excess calories in prepared foods by 10 percent in 10 years many of the bulging problems in western waistlines would be reduced. I think this is a realistic goal. I also think this is the best method for affecting this type of change.

I feel that the original fat Nazi, Herman Göring, got what was coming to him. (Well not quite, he did manage to avoided his date with the executioner but did ulimately pay for his crimes.) I also feel that the actions of these Fat Nazis need to be successful. Not in banning trans-fats but in changing lifestyles for millions of people, behind the scenes, at the source not the sink. Saving lives and not taking them like the original Nazis did.

2 comments so far

  1. Teresa on

    Fat Nazis (of the Herman Goring kind)


    Someone once sent me an e-mail commenting on one of my posts and gave me this URL as proof that fat is healthy, trans-fats are just fine, and people are responsible for their own health and if they just get educated they won’t be fat.

    Problem is, this site is spreading MISinformation on behalf of the food industry.

    Which is why we need laws. The “Free Market” would only have a ghost of a chance at working if the big money industries couldn’t pull crap like this.

  2. […] Teresa, SAHM aka Kung Fu Goddess (insert appropriate obsequious fawning gesture here – you’ll tell me when I can stop doing this right?),  pointed me to this web page. I won’t even repeat the name here, they don’t need the traffic. […]

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