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.