Human Nature

Tempting Fat

The coming crackdown on trans fats.

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.

But that’s the funny thing about trans fats: They aren’t exactly food. A century ago, they hardly existed. Nature didn’t mass-produce them; we did. By adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils—hence the term “partially hydrogenated”—we learned how to solidify these oils, mimicking butter. The first trans-fat triumph, in 1911, was Crisco.

Solidity remains a central purpose of this technology. Look at the New York health department’s list of products made with trans fats: french fries, taco shells, doughnuts, pizza dough, crackers, cookies, and pie crusts. What do these products have in common? They start out spongy and end up crunchy. Trans fats create texture, not flavor. They allow fast frying, so you can make food crispy without losing its moisture. And they’re slow to go bad, so you can keep cookies longer on store shelves.

Trans fats proliferated because they were cheap. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, when we learned how harmful saturated fats were, manufacturers and restaurants dumped them and switched to trans fats. As the National Restaurant Association bitterly observed in its testimony against the New York ban, trans fats are everywhere because the “industry replaced one fat with another.”

Everything that’s wrong with trans fats follows from their industrial heritage. In nature, things generally don’t stick around unless they serve some purpose. Cream is lousy for adult arteries, but it nourishes babies of all kinds. In nature, things that are harmful in excess tend to disappear unless they’re safe in moderation. And nature is always looking for alternatives, so if something dangerous is still here, it has probably been hard to replace.

None of these things is true of trans fats. They’re worse than saturated fats, because, in addition to raising bad cholesterol, they lower good cholesterol. As the health department points out, “there is no safe level of artificial trans fat consumption … in contrast to other dietary fats which, when consumed in moderation, are a natural part of a healthy diet. Artificially produced trans fat is relatively new to our food supply and confers no known health benefit.”

Because trans fats are industrial, regulating them feels like regulating chemicals, not food. The department understands this. In its two documents explaining the ban, it uses the word “artificial” 77 times. It points out that most restaurant customers “have no way of knowing whether or not a product contains trans fat.” Restaurant associations admit that even their members don’t know what trans fats are. So, it’s hard to defend trans fats as a free choice.

Because trans fats are industrial, they’re easy to replace. Businesses that switched to them years ago can switch again. Many already have. You can even buy Crisco without them. Companies that cling to trans fats fret that their food won’t taste the same, but companies that have let go say customers can’t tell the difference. After all, trans fats were never about taste. McDonald’s insists that despite years of research, it hasn’t found a trans-fat-free oil that will keep its fries McDelicious. Please. You can get trans-fat-free fries at McDonald’s right now. You just have to go to one of its franchises in Denmark, where trans fats are virtually illegal.

Pretty soon, you won’t have to go to Denmark. In January, the FDA began requiring trans-fat information on food labels. Legislators in New Jersey, Chicago, and Louisville floated trans-fat bans even before New York’s plan went through. Restaurants say health crusaders won’t stop with trans fats, and they’re right. The same day it banned trans fats, New York ordered restaurants with standardized menus to prominently display the number of calories in each item. A Chicago councilman wants to copy that idea.

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.

The health-policy climate is clearly shifting in this direction. The instigator of the New York ban, city health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, says chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes are eclipsing infectious diseases. Most experts and politicians share that view. We already regulate restaurants for infectious disease; why not extend that scrutiny to chronic disease? That’s how New York plans to enforce its ban: “Food safety inspectors will check for artificial trans fat during regular yearly inspections.”

Even the business lobby is playing along. Every restaurant association that testified against New York’s ban pointed out that on aggregate, if not ounce for ounce, saturated fats are more harmful than trans fats. This was supposed to be an argument against the ban. But once you accept the ban, it becomes an argument for targeting saturated fats, too. Way to go, food industry! First you concoct a fat that begs for regulation; then you make the case for going beyond it. You’re cooking your own goose. Extra crispy, of course.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.