Putting the numbers in perspective

On November 7 the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of trans fats in processed foods, are no longer “generally recognized as safe.” The FDA then issued a Federal Register Notice reiterating that, “Based on new scientific evidence and the findings of expert scientific panels…PHOs…are not generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for any use in food based on current scientific evidence establishing the health risks associated with the consumption of trans fat, and therefore that PHOs are food additives.” If this determination holds, PHOs would be considered food additives and would therefore be subject to premarket FDA approval. “Foods containing unapproved food additives are considered adulterated under U.S. law, meaning they cannot legally be sold,” the FDA announced.

WebMD reports that trans fats were once considered a great thing because they “enhance the flavor, texture and shelf life of many processed foods.” Unfortunately, they also come with a health risk. In fact WebMD describes that risk in highly technical terms: “Trans fatty foods tantalize your taste buds, then travel through your digestive system to your arteries, where they turn to sludge.” As a result of that health risk the FDA has required that trans fats be listed on food labels since 2006, allowing health-conscious consumers to carefully select whether or not they wish to ingest these sludge-creating PHOs. Interestingly enough, though, the FDA also decided that companies can advertise and label foods as having zero trans fats even if they have up to 0.5 grams of them per serving. (Sneaky, no?) Still and all, as a result of the potential health risks and the general desire among the American shopping public to eat healthier (or at least appear to) many restaurants and food manufacturers have already discontinued the use of PHOs. And, despite the fear that as they did so they would simply replace the PHOs with saturated fats, WebMD reports that that has generally not been the case except with microwave popcorn.

So what’s the big deal now? Why is the FDA trying to ban trans fats and literally make the sale of food containing them potentially illegal? The FDA claims that doing so would “prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.” That’s why.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for preventing death. I am, after all, pro-life. But therein lies the rub for me. These trans fats are, in the vast majority of instances, being purchased by adults and consumed by adults of their own free will or by children with adult consent. Should the FDA work with food manufacturers to limit if not eliminate potentially unhealthy food products or additives? Sure, I suppose so…but I think making the sale of those products illegal is a stretch of government authority, not to mention a real perversion of what government priorities should be.

The National Cancer Institute reports, “Every year, approximately 200,000 people in the United States get lung cancer, and more than 159,000 people die from this disease.” That is a far cry from the 7,000 and 20,000 figures being tied to PHOs, but I hear no one suggesting that the sale of cigarettes should be illegal. I see no classification from the FDA that cigarettes are “generally not recognized as safe.”

According to MADD, more than 10,000 people die every year as a result of drunk driving crashes. And when it comes to adults drinking too much and driving, the Centers for Disease Control reports that that happens about 300,000 times per day in the United States. How many people does that put at risk? Still, no one seriously suggests banning the production, sale or consumption of alcohol. After all, that did not work real well last time it was tried.

Of course, I can hear someone suggesting that there are laws against drinking and driving so that is not a good comparison. Okay…just for the sake of argument, I’ll grant you that. Consider this, though; WebMD also reports, “Every year, about 31,000 people in the U.S. die from cirrhosis, mainly due to alcoholic liver disease and chronic hepatitis C.” Thirty-one thousand is a lot more than the 7,000 the banning of trans fats is supposed to save. Do not even think about suggesting that a lot of that number can come from hepatitis C, either; the Centers for Disease Control reports that approximately 17,000 Americans become infected with hepatitis C each year. For every 100 of those infected, only one to five will die of cirrhosis or liver cancer. That means, even assuming the high end, 850 people per year die of cirrhosis as a result of chronic hepatitis C–leaving more than 30,000 dying from cirrhosis causes by the consumption of alcohol.

So, the FDA wants to ban trans fats because doing so might prevent 7,000 deaths per year caused by heart disease, but no one wants to ban cigarettes or alcohol, despite the fact that they result in far more deaths than trans fats do. And that’s fine by me, by the way; I am not suggesting that cigarettes or alcohol should be illegal, either. I am simply trying to point out the silliness of the justification for this government overreach.

While I am at it, I should also point out that trans fats, cigarettes and alcohol all pale in comparison to the leading legal cause of death in the United States. By that, of course, I mean abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute there were roughly 1.2 million abortions performed in 2008 (apparently the most recent year for which numbers are available). Shall we put that in perspective?

* Abortion takes more lives in three days than banning trans fats would save in a year

* Abortion takes more lives in four days than drunk driving crashes do in one year

* Abortion takes more lives in ten days than cirrhosis does in one year

* Abortion takes more lives in 48 days than lung cancer does in one year

Given the realities, maybe we should forget about trans fats and think a bit more carefully about the “right” to abortion in the United States.

Cookie Cutters

It’s interesting to me that the same government that has thus far permitted and/or encouraged pro-choice positions on such fundamentally moral issues as abortion and homosexual marriage seeks to deny choice in so many other areas. For example, there are pushes to seriously restrict gun ownership, there are efforts to muzzle the discussion of positions other than evolution in school textbooks and science courses and, yes, there is now a law prohibiting the sale of sugary treats and high calorie drinks in school cafeterias and vending machines.

The new guidelines were announced in June. The U.S. Department of Agriculture program is entitled “Smart Snacks in Schools” and will eliminate candy and sugary drinks from school vending machines and a la carte menus as soon as next year. In fact, to quote a report from the Dallas News, the new guidelines will establish “fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on almost everything sold during the school day, even outside of the cafeteria.” The executive director of the food and nutrition services for the Dallas school district said that while the changes will be difficult, they are “in the best interest of…students.” She went on to say that the new rules force schools to provide “healthier options.” The reality, though, is that that is not really true. See, “options” presupposes that the schools will offer healthy snack items as well as the more “traditional” snacks that the new guidelines ban. But when the “healthier options” are the only choices, they are not, in fact, “options.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack used similar language in his statement regarding the guidelines, saying, “Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options through school cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars will support their great efforts.” Again, though, Mr. Secretary, when choices are eliminated, “options” are not what remains.

An article in the New York Times reports, “When schools open in the fall of 2014, vending machines will have to be stocked with things like whole wheat crackers, granola bars and dried fruits, instead of M&Ms, Cheese Nips and gummy bears.” I am not opposed to having things like whole wheat crackers and granola bars in school vending machines; I think that is a great idea. I would wholeheartedly support the encouragement–perhaps even the requirement–that such options be made available (though I would prefer–and be much more likely to support–such requirements being made at the local level than coming down from on high). What riles me is both the “government knows best” attitude that is inherent in these new guidelines and the blatant inconsistency in the government’s position in this area as opposed to others.

The Times article also quotes Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She said, “By teaching and modeling healthy eating habits to children in school, these rules will encourage better eating habits over a lifetime. They mean we aren’t teaching nutrition in the classroom and then undercutting what we’re teaching when kids eat in the cafeteria or buy food from the school vending machines.” I love her use of the word modeling, because that is a word I use often in emphasizing the responsibility that teachers have in working with students; particularly in a Christian school, there should not be a disconnect between what we say and what we do. But eliminating choice is not modeling anything other than the idea that the government needs to make this decision for schools, parents and students because they are not capable of making the right decisions on their own. And again, if we buy into the idea that we should create environments that force people to live according to what we believe is ideal, we will soon live in a country with little or no freedom. And do not forget–anytime there is a decision about what is best, someone has to be making that decision. Who do you really want deciding what is best for you or for your child? Michelle Obama? Tom Vilsack? The food services director at your child’s school? Or you, the parent?

The Times article reports, “Health advocates are taking the same approach to curb the consumption of fatty, sugary and salty foods that they did to reduce smoking: educating children in the hopes that they will grow up healthier and perhaps pass along healthy eating behavior to their parents.” Interesting comparison, because I do not recall anyone banning the sale of cigarettes in order to curtail smoking. Sure, cigarettes were not sold in schools, and there have been laws passed regarding when and how cigarettes can be marketed in order to ensure that they are not being advertised to children, but the sale of cigarettes has never been banned. If health advocates were truly taking the same approach then they would realize that (1) the change they are trying to effect takes time, and (2) it comes ultimately as a result of education and personal choice. Is cigarette use down in the United States? Yes. Is it down because anyone was prohibited from smoking? No.

“Ms. Wootan said she was pleased that the rules would prevent the sale of sugary sports drinks like Gatorade in high schools. The drinks have already been withdrawn from elementary and middle schools, but Ms. Wootan said teenagers mistakenly think such drinks are healthier than sodas,” the Times reports. Okay; assume her point is valid. Correcting this “mistaken thinking” should be accomplished through providing the facts and educating the teenagers who are mistaken, not by eliminating their choice. And the fact that the drinks have already been eliminated at the elementary and middle school levels but are popular among high schoolers serves only to demonstrate that the elimination of the choice does not ultimately inform or change behavior, since today’s high school students were, necessarily, yesterday’s elementary and middle school students. If banning such drinks from the lower schools accomplished the goal, the high schoolers would avoid these drinks even once they were available (which they don’t) and if they did that, the schools would stop selling them since they would sit unsold in the vending machines until they expired. Imagine that–a free market system at work!

All of this comes from the fact that the U.S. has a high rate of childhood obesity, and the powers that be feel that it is the rightful role and responsibility of the government to fix that. Given that the government seems incapable of fixing much more serious problems that are most definitely its bailiwick, I question this logic. But put that doubt aside. Is there an obesity epidemic in the U.S.? Based on the numbers I have seen, there is legitimate cause for concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and more than tripled in teenagers in the last thirty years. In 2010, more than one-third of children and teens were classified as overweight or obese.

But what causes obesity? The CDC reports, “Overweight and obesity are the result of ‘caloric imbalance’–too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed—and are affected by various genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.” And therein, my friends, lies the problem. Notice that the CDC does not say that obesity results from too many Snickers bars in school vending machines or too many Powerades being consumed by high school students. Rather, the problem comes when students are continually taking calories in and never burning them. So the problem is not what the students are eating nearly so much as it is what they are doing–or, perhaps more accurately, not doing. When students spend their free time sitting around texting, surfing the Internet and playing video games they are not burning many calories. A much better solution to the problem would be to get students to be more active. Should they eat healthy? Sure. But banning cookies from the cafeteria is not going to accomplish that by itself.

The school where I serve is not subject to all of the federal guidelines for school lunches because we are a non-public school and we do not take any government funding. We have vending machines that sell sodas and sports drinks. Our cafeteria serves healthy meals but it also serves dessert. We have water fountains and we have a salad bar. In other words, we actually offer choices. And students in our cafeteria can even–brace yourself–have seconds if they want! But guess what? Though I have never measured it, I think I can safely state that the rate of students who are overweight or obese at our school is far lower than the national norm.

You know what that means, right? Yep… Eliminating choices won’t solve the problem.