Economics free-market Health New-York partially-hydrogenated-vegetable-oil Politics Science

First they Came for the Trans Fats, and I did not Speak Up

...and then there was no one left to speak up for me. Pity the poor citizens of New York City. Their most basic human rights have been stripped away. The freedom to choose has been stripped from them by a big brother who says he knows what's best. Adam Smith, George Washington, and Milton Friedman are spinning in their graves, and the Statue of Liberty sheds a single, rusty tear as she gazes across the at a once free people. No, I'm not talking about illegal domestic wire tapping, or the denial of the First Amendment via remote "free speech zones." We all know that those are required to combat terrorism, and triffling privileges like those are a small cost for combating terrorism. I am talking about a much more important freedom: the right to choose to eat foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, rich with trans fats. "Dear god, say it isn't so!" you shout. "What will they ban next?" Probably baseball and apple pie. But while I would join you in protesting and future attacks on baseball and apple pie, I am afraid I cannot join in your outrage over the trans fat ban, for three reasons: First off, trans fats are really, really bad for us. Consuming them results in much harm and no benefit whatsoever. I'm not going to say anything more about this point, the research is out there. Secondly, a trans fat ban does not really take any choice away from consumers. How can that be? Let's perform a scientific experiment. Walk into a restaurant, sit down to order, and examine the menu. Exercise your right to choose by picking out the food with the most trans fat. Having a hard time? That's okay, ask the waiter or waitress which food has the most trans fat. Still having difficulties? Demand to speak to the manager. See if that helps. Although trans fat content above .5 grams has been required on packaged food labels for almost a year, there is often no way to know the trans fat content in restaurant food. You have no way to choose because to have no basis for making a choice. This is not a case of nanny-state Marxism injecting inefficiency into the free market, this is a small, but very real, market failure--a very common case where one (or both) sides of a transaction do not have the information needed to rationally pursue their own interests. A sufficient amount of transparency a necessary condition for a free market. If lack of information and transparency is the problem, why not simply require labeling in restaurants instead of banning trans fats outright? Quite frankly, holding restaurants (especially sole proprietorships and "mom and pop" shops) to accurate food labeling would be much, much more costly to them than an outright ban. No more chefs deciding today's special on based solely on their skill and artistry - everything would need to be vetted and nutrition calculated. A huge apparatus of state would need to be created for testing and enforcement. I can't see too many libertarians in favor of that. Third, banning partially hydrogenated vegetable oils with make food better, not worse. The truth of the matter is, if they had managed to somehow eliminate trans fats in secret, you would not have even noticed. Trans fats are not used to enhance the flavor of food; the most they can do is effect the texture of foods that have been sitting out for a long time. Restaurants do not use them because they are what consumers demand or prefer - they use them so that they can leave the same oil in the fryer for a longer period of time and sell girl scout cookies baked long ago as if they were fresh. If anything, a ban will result in fresher food. Costs may go up for restaurants, but not by an inordinate amount - Denmark banned trans fats in 2003, yet you can still get McDonald's french fries without taking out a loan. Taste is, of course, very subjective. There are plenty of chefs swearing they cannot do without. But keep this fact in mind: very, very little food made in the 1980s or earlier had anywhere near the amount of trans fat found in foods today. And yet historical records show people living in such ancient times considered their food "yummy" and "delicious." Removing trans fats is in fact a return to cooking "just like mom used to make." Finally, I can't take seriously any argument against the ban founded on "first they said this was bad, now that" cynicism. I know, I know... first they said saturated fats were bad, so you stopped eating butter. Now they say trans fats are bad, so you can't eat margarine anymore. Clearly these "scientists" have lost all credibility and are just toying with the public for their own amusement. I hate to have to be the one to break it to you, but this is actually a perfect example of how science works. The scientific method is not a way to prove, beyond all doubt, that something is true with a capital 'T.' It is a way to come up with the best explanation given the data available. That best explanation will almost necessarily change over time - first came enough evidence to accept that fatty foods were linked to heart disease. Then, as more information and finer measurements were taken, it was discovered that saturated fats, in particular, a re very bad. Then, after the food industry started replacing saturated fats with trans fats, more and more data because available leading to the conclusion that trans fats are even worse than saturated fats. I am sorry if this is distressing to you. If you want (relatively) unchanging truth, you are more than welcome to turn to the various religions of the world. But keep this in mind: unlike other systems, science and its application have consistently generated real-world results, such as vaccination, air planes, antibiotics, the internal combustion engine, rockets, nuclear weapons, and the XBox 360. Perhaps ten years from now we will discover that only trans fats with certain numbers of carbon atoms are really bad, and some are okay. Oh well.