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Banning Trans Fats: A Life-Saving Measure or a Dangerous Curb on Consumer Freedom?

Banning Trans Fats: A Life-Saving Measure or a Dangerous Curb on Consumer Freedom?

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French fries. Cinnamon rolls. Ice cream cake. While foods like these may conjure up feelings of gastronomic bliss, in large amounts they can have devastating effects on your health. Trans fat, a common ingredient in many baked and fast foods, has been the subject of a controversy that has led a handful of cities to ban the substance from restaurants, and many others to propose similar measures. The bans were spurred by studies showing that trans fat consumption adversely affects cholesterol levels, increasing a person's chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Despite the risks associated with trans fats, however, some people continue to pose the question: What about our right to choose? As consumers in a free society, shouldn't we be able to decide which kinds of foods we eat? The answer to this question may end up shaping the future of the food industry.

Pushing the Trans-Fat Ban

Supporters of a ban on trans fats point to the negative health effects of these controversial fats. Trans fats increase a person's chances of developing heart disease by delivering a double whammy to cholesterol levels. Not only do trans fats raise LDL cholesterol (the so-called “bad” cholesterol), but they also lower HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol that helps to eliminate the harmful kind). These changes can cause the arteries to become clogged, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.

In April 2006, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed a series of studies on the health effects of trans fats and published their conclusions in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers noted that "a 2 percent increase in energy intake from trans fatty acids was associated with a 23 percent increase in the incidence of coronary heart disease." In an earlier article, the same researchers claimed that replacing trans-fat-laden oils with trans-fat-free alternatives would prevent at least 30,000 heart-related deaths in the U.S. each year.

Hands Off My Fries

Opponents of a trans-fat ban are quick to look past the claims about the substance’s harmful effects, asserting that the issue boils down to one not of health but of consumer freedom. According to their argument, people should have the right to decide which kinds of foods they consume, regardless of the nutritional value of those foods. Those who hold this view contend that the government has no right to police a person’s dietary intake, even if restrictions were imposed for his or her own benefit. Rather, they argue, it is the role of government to prevent violations of individual rights, nutritional and otherwise.

Many regard the effort to restrict the use of trans fats as a “nanny state” intrusion that could have far-reaching consequences. While debating a proposal to ban trans fats in all California restaurants, Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi posed the question, "What's next, a ban on ice cream, sugar, and chocolate cake?" Nakanishi and other critics are concerned that the logic behind banning trans fats may lead to laws restricting other potentially harmful foods, such as sugar, salt, and artificial flavors.

The Future of Trans Fats

So far in 2007, thirteen states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts, have proposed statewide bans on the use of trans fats in restaurants. In the meanwhile, local bans have been enacted in Philadelphia, Maryland’s Montgomery County, and, perhaps most notably, New York City. Given New York City's history as a public policy trendsetter – in 2003, the city's passage of a smoking ban spurred other cities to adopt similar measures – it seems likely that more and more restaurants and food companies will abandon trans fats in favor of healthier alternatives, whether by choice or by legal mandate.

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