Monday, June 19, 2006

The people at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) could give meddlesome busybodies a bad name. In fact, that almost seems to be the point of their latest lawsuit, which targets KFC’s use of cooking oil with trans fat. CSPI thinks that if companies and customers don’t shun this type of fat, the courts should step in and force them to.

Scientists generally agree that trans fat is not the healthiest thing to include in your diet. It raises levels of “bad” cholesterol, believed to increase the risk of heart disease. But it’s one thing to say there are drawbacks to the consumption of trans fat and another to insist fast-food restaurants immediately get rid of it. When it comes to dietary dangers, today’s wisdom is often tomorrow’s folly.

Trans fat is a good example. In 1988, when CSPI was demanding McDonald’s stop using beef tallow to cook french fries, it dismissed worries about trans-fat-laden hydrogenated cooking oil: “All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.” Now, it says just the opposite. But the discovery of its error has not fostered any humility about imposing its preferences.

Prudence is commendable, but the lawsuit stems from a less useful impulse: panic. It’s easy to exaggerate the threat posed by this type of fat, and CSPI happily seizes the opportunity.

The lawsuit says KFC’s continued use of partially hydrogenated oil is “outrageous” and betrays the company’s “evil motive, intent to injure, ill will” and other nasty traits. It argues KFC “recklessly puts its customers at risk of a Kentucky Fried Coronary.” CSPI also claims a panel commissioned by the federal Institute of Medicine “concluded that the only safe level of trans fat in the diet is zero.”

I asked one panel member, Tufts University nutrition science professor Alice Lichtenstein, if that is an accurate summary of its findings. “No,” she replied. What the report concluded, she said, is that “consumption should be as low as possible because there’s no human requirement for trans fat. That’s different.” Saying we don’t need trans fat to sustain life is a long way from saying the tiniest exposure could be lethal.

Ms. Lichtenstein favors a phaseout of hydrogenated oils but is careful not to overstate their dangers. Despite the effect of trans fat on bad cholesterol, she says, there is no data on whether it raises the risk of heart disease.

Other experts also exhibit cooler heads than those at CSPI. Last year, Dr. Scott Grundy, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, told the New York Times the alleged connection between trans fat and heart disease is too weak to warrant a government recommendation.

Trans fat is not some toxic contaminant, like arsenic or salmonella, guaranteed to sicken you. Cardiovascular health is a complicated product of many factors, including genes, exercise, smoking, alcohol use, body weight, overall diet and — maybe — trans fat.

Even if it does contribute to heart disease, the courts have no business dictating whether fast-food restaurants may use it. For customers who care, KFC gives ample information on its Web site and in brochures available in its restaurants. The man CSPI represents in this lawsuit says he knew trans fat is unhealthy but had no idea KFC uses it. If he didn’t care enough to ask, why should the courts care enough to intervene?

Food giants, it may be helpful to recall, don’t set out to kill their customers, if only because corpses don’t spend money. If Americans want meals free of trans fats, companies will give it to them. Just this month, Wendy’s announced it would stop using partially hydrogenated oils in its french fries. Frito-Lay, Kraft and Kellogg have also announced plans to reduce or eliminate trans fat from a variety of products.

KFC, however, says it hasn’t found another oil that produces as good a taste. In a competitive market, consumers can make their own choices and live with the consequences. Most are smart enough to figure out the obvious: Though eating at KFC every day might shorten your life expectancy, the health dangers of an occasional Extra Crispy drumstick are anywhere from negligible to nonexistent. But letting CSPI decide what’s best for all of us? Now, that’s risky.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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