Tuesday, the New York Board of Health unanimously voted to ban trans fat in all of New York restaurants. The ban will not take effect immediately, but the Board expects all of New York’s restaurants to be trans fat free as of July 2008.
Nutritionists across the country have applauded the decree, and have claimed that trans fats are worse than saturated fats as they both increase bad cholesterol and simultaneously decrease good cholesterol. Considering the disastrous effects of obesity as well as our national failure to combat the disease, the ban might just be the start of something both remarkably healthy and necessary: indeed, the city of Chicago has proposed a similar ban. Even multi-million, multi-national fast food chains have either already voluntarily stopped cooking with trans fats (KFC) or have begun researching trans fats alternatives (Wendy’s, I think).
Despite these obvious and admitted benefits, I’m still grappling with the Board of Health’s recent decision. Perhaps some form of libertarianism initiates my discomfort. I think this decree reeks of over-governance, perhaps of the worst kind of hold-your-hand liberalism. I felt the same about the V-chip push years ago, those cute little substitutes that let parents off the hook and keep their children from stumbling across sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. But V-chips never became law.
The Board of Health and other nutritionists have defended the ban, equating trans fats with slow-acting poisons. In some of the reports I have read, defenders will say that arsenic might taste good in food, but it’s the responsibility of the government (municipal, state, federal, what have you) to protect its citizens from a known poison. The same, they reason, goes for trans fats.
But interestingly, as of right now there’s nothing illegal about trans fats at all, at least outside of New York. The Food and Drug Administration has approved trans fats. I imagine that somewhere in the FDA’s tomes there’s a clause or section barring restaurateurs and chefs from lacing their food with arsenic (and if not, there probably should be). But as of right now, Washington says it’s OK to cook with. The National Restaurant Association says that banning trans fats sets us on a slippery slope, and that slope might be slippery because it’s been greased with cooking oils. Precedent could push municipal, state or federal government to ban (beloved) bacon, or as Nick Naylor had it in “Thank You for Smoking”, Vermont’s cheddar cheese. These fatty foods, not necessarily made with trans fats but certainly high in saturated fat, could be reasoned to act as even slower-acting poisons like their recently-banned cousin. Depending on how you look at it, this precedent might lead to fitter Americans or to an unnavoidable infringement on our inalienable rights.
This, of course, might all change. Considering New York’s move, Chicago’s potential move, the federal law mandating the labeling of all trans fats in commercial food and restaurants’ voluntary move away from trans fats, the oil might be, well, cooked. And if so, well, good riddance. Voluntary moves towards a healthier product and a healthier lifestyle are commendable, and if the free market demands a healthier product then that’s saying good about us as consumers (both economically and digestively).
An abrupt change here, but I think an important one that should reconnect with some of the ideas I’ve explored later on: The way, not ways, the bill is being covered is fascinating. More often than not, news agencies will say something to the effect of “Mayor Michael Bloomburg, who banned smoking in New York bars and restaurants during his first term, signed the bill today.” I simply don’t believe in the implied equation between smoking and trans fats. The push behind the smoking bans tends or tended to focus on the deleterious effects of secondhand/involuntary/passive smoking, that exposes ‘innocents’ to carcinogens that can lead to lung cancer. Yes, trans fats have obvious and maybe irreversible effects, and, like secondhand smoke, can increase the chances of cancer. But short of someone cramming a donut in your mouth or you slipping on a greasy French fry, I doubt that the same goes for fatty foods. A family can be effected by a family member’s poor eating, but a family can also effect the family member’s poor eating. And if we want to eat poorly for a meal or two or three or as many as we want, and if we understand the consequences of that meal, then, as adults, we should be entitled to. Right?
Maybe not. Like I said, the coverage of the bill is fascinating, and reveals something ugly about us as humans pre-politically. In order to stretch the article, news agents have gone to New York fast food joints and interviewed the patrons about the bill. More often than not, every patron supported the trans fat ban (I only read one complaint, wherein the patron worried that the price of his lunch would go up because of the costlier cooking oils). The patrons that supported the measure all discussed the obvious health benefits to the ban, were all eager to be eating healthier and realized that the change in the oil would probably improve their lives. Reporters, augmenting the quotes that they received from these patrons, noted that they received their quotes as the patrons fed their children McDonald’s French fries, gnawed on hamburgers, chewed on donuts.
As I said, most of the patrons expressed some understanding that trans fats were bad for them. Then why go and eat the damn food? Why put it in your children’s hands? Why wait for the government to come along, hold your hand, and smack the French fry from your mouth? If these patrons were concerned, truly concerned with what they were eating, were aware of what it could do to their bodies and so readily welcomed the enforced change, then why did they wait for the Board of Health? Like I said, the coverage reveals something ugly, something lazy, about us. In spite of our understanding, more often than not we won’t save ourselves. But we’ll happily wait for and let someone else do it for us.