Assessments of health risk and a proper role for certain foods have been unreliable and sometimes self-defeating. Government agencies charged with protecting and advising consumers seem to approach the task as true believers. They act with the conviction of freshly minted deacons in pursuit of whatever chapter of the health catechism they are told to promote at that point in time. But sometimes better science crumbles the bedrock of their beliefs, forcing them to recant.
Tobacco was considered just a nuisance for decades before it was classified as toxic and a contributor to cancer of the respiratory pathways. It took decades for the science to become conclusive on the damage to health and even longer for the legal apparatus to allow consumers to benefit from restraining cigarettes’ distribution and marketing. While no tobacco product is safe, smokeless tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes, have been shown to be much safer than smoking. Yet, these less harmful products are fast approaching the same label warnings, regulations and taxes as their ignited counterparts, contrary to the science.
Trans-fats are being denounced in a reversal of official guidance by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Despite scientist warnings in the 1950s that partially hydrogenated fats (trans-fats) might have a downside, since 1980 the US Department of Health has touted trans-fats as “a healthier alternative to their sinister saturated cousins.” Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said, “overall, hydrogenated oils don’t pose a significant risk.” The faith in trans-fat safety fueled sermons by food regulators on avoiding saturated fats and cholesterol – because they lead to heart disease.
A popular example of a trans-fat is Crisco, a product used in frying and even for frosting cakes. Crisco was welcomed in part because it is a vegetable oil with buttery texture. Crisco was considered a healthier choice than animal fats such as those in butter or lard. But better science is now available and it’s trans-fats’ turn for the “tar and feather” treatment. Now butter is better. Nagging will resume from food regulators and their associated harpies, this time demanding we avoid trans-fat. The din will probably be as loud as earlier warnings that condemned the other bete noir – saturated fats.
Salt has been a long time scapegoat with a maximum suggested daily intake set at 2.3 grams (1 teaspoon of salt) compared with the average actual intake of 3.4 grams. Some researchers say that when intake climbs to 9 grams, the risk of cardiovascular problems rises to 4.5 times the risk at 3.4 grams. However, another group of respected of researchers say the risk at 9 grams increases to just 1.1 times the 3.4 gram level, in other words sodium is less of a health risk than Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture say it is. But, you can take that with a grain of salt.
Despite significant scientific controversy on acceptable levels of dietary sodium, the regulatory mindset of New York City’s Board of Health concludes that salt-alarmists are right and the public will need a salt warning on individual food items in all chain restaurants. There is a good likelihood that the health department will have to publicly walk its sodium canard backwards – as happened with tobacco, trans-fat, and most relevant, soda in containers bigger than 16 ounces.
Regulations have demanded restaurants produce nutrition signs for everything they sell, which would amount to about 34 million signs to cover each possible pizza combination at a Domino’s restaurant, or roughly $1,500 per store.
One gets the impression that food nannies care more about the opportunity for political posturing than they care about science-based health advice.
Alan Daley is writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.