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EDITORIAL: The government war on choice

The FDA continues to change the recipe for everyone’s dinner

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The government is a terrible and indecisive cook. One day the Food and Drug Administration tells the public it must eat more of something, and the next it says no, stay away from that. It's easy to conclude that the FDA merely wants to rid everyone's diet of everything that tastes good, with harsh admonitions to "eat your spinach."

The agency's history of nutritional waffling is why its latest crusade, against trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils, is worthy of deep skepticism.

There's actually no need for the government to ban trans fats because the use of trans fats is steadily decreasing in the American diet. Rather than allow the market to manage the threat, if threat there really is, the FDA insists on ridding artificial trans fats from America's kitchens by administrative dictate, all in the name of saving the lives the government tries hard to make miserable.

The science behind FDA's salutary claim is dubious, as the agency sways with whatever nutritional wind is blowing. In 1959, the FDA wanted no part of the fats wars. The agency declared that "the advisability of making extensive changes in the nature of dietary fat intake had not been demonstrated, and that any labeling claim related to heart disease would be regarded as illegal." A few years later, when Nabisco tried to inform consumers of the fat content of a box of Shredded Wheat, the FDA confiscated the boxes.

In the 1980s, busybodies at the Center for Science in the Public Interest pushed the idea that America must replace traditional lard, butter, coconut and palm oil with saturated fats, margarine and shortening, all of which contained partially hydrogenated oils. The nutritionists scorned those substances, even though, as science author Gary Taubes observes, there's no evidence of a causal link to the notion that more than the recommended consumption of saturated fats triggers death in anyone "not already at high risk of heart disease."

Some 30 years on, the scientific "consensus" has flipped, and saturated fats aren't so terrible any more. We're told that trans fats are the enemy of the arteries. Although the consumption of trans fats in the United States has been declining, the incidence of heart disease has not.

Americans on average consume about 5.8 grams of trans fats each day, and the medical establishment sees two grams as a safe level. Forcing the number to zero likely has no additional benefit beyond bringing consumption to the "safe" level of two grams.

Bad science makes bad rules — and worse health outcomes. This was true in the 1980s, and it's true today. Americans still can't abide government nannies with long-handled spoons eager to make the medicine go down. Heart disease is complex, affected by diet, lifestyle and ancestors. Grown-ups and their doctors, not bureaucrats who can't resist the urge to practice medicine, can arm themselves with information and make health decisions for themselves.

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