Fat In Foods (2005 Sep)

by Barry A. Liebling

Recently the health commissioner in New York City has launched a campaign to urge restaurants and food suppliers to refrain from using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils because they contain trans fats. The commissioner asserts that foods with trans fats are inherently unhealthy. For example, trans fats have been demonstrated to elevate the “bad” LDL cholesterol and reduce the “good” HDL cholesterol – contributing to the risk of diseases.

The events in New York bring up interesting questions. What are the ethical principles that apply to food manufacturers regarding which fats they ought to use? How should a consumer think about types of fats in selecting food? What is the appropriate role of government in this controversy?

In the food business, as in any business, the prime consideration is to create value. As a manufacturer you are on the right track if you are making food that, on balance, enhances the lives of those who are supposed to eat it. Of course, the possible benefits that a consumer can get from food are numerous. Foods and beverages are made for various types of people (such as babies, children, adults) and can serve many types of purposes (such as get specific nutrients, build muscle, gain weight, lose weight, quick energy, have delicious experience, celebrate). A food supplier should be able to articulate the positive payoffs of her products.

And food, like all products and services, has downsides. Anything that can be ingested can be consumed foolishly and cause harm. Even plain water will make you sick if you drink too much of it. Using good judgement and common sense, the responsible food manufacturer has to discriminate between the significant – as opposed to trivial – downsides of her products.

What about partially hydrogenated oil? The food maker has to consider the objective evidence and evaluate to what extent it detracts from – or enhances – the food’s value. She may conclude that other oils are less risky and should be used instead. Or she may have evidence that partially hydrogenated oil is a splendid ingredient.

In promoting and advertising food, the claim “contains no trans fats” might turn out to be a convincing selling point. Alternatively, a manufacturer who has good reasons to endorse trans fat could proudly proclaim that her products are laced with it. Of course, the manufacturer must take care to craft communications that are true and likely to be understood. For example, a label that says a muffin “contains zero grams of trans fat” might mean that it contains .4 grams, which is zero rounded to the nearest gram. If the label would be easier to comprehend with “contains less than one gram of trans fat,” the wording should be clarified.

A free adult has the authority to decide what foods he will purchase and consume. One implication of this freedom is that it is your responsibility as a consumer to educate yourself and make intelligent selections. To what extent do you want to have trans fats in your diet? What reasons do you have for your preference? Every competent adult is capable of doing this investigating. The alternative to being free to select food according to your own judgement is to relinquish that responsibility to someone else. Ordinarily only children and mental invalids should be deprived of their power of choice.

A consequence of having the authority to select your own food is that you may act wisely or foolishly. Freedom and responsibility imply the possibility of making the wrong choice. Motivated people will obtain the information they need to be smart about buying food. Alternatively, some people are not interested, will fail to become informed, or will know what they should eat but not act prudently.

The proper role of government is limited to the protection of individual rights. In the food arena government should use its power to assure that the initiation of force is not tolerated. Government should not forbid the sale of comestibles containing trans fats. To the extent that food manufacturers and consumers regard trans fats as detracting from the value of food, the use of trans fats will shrink.

Of course, government should deal swiftly and harshly with fraud. Food manufacturers have an obligation to assure that anything they say about ingredients – especially the presence or absence of trans fats – is true. Requiring honesty sets the stage for correct actions.

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