The implications of a state cracking down on food products it considers unhealthy are somewhat alarming. It makes us worry that doughnuts, potato chips and sausage biscuits might be endangered someday.
Nonetheless, if states decide to ban a substance commonly found in the American diet, trans fats would be a good candidate. New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle and Montgomery County, Md., already have ordinances banning trans fats.
But last month, California became the first state to ban trans fats from restaurant food statewide. The legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will take effect Jan. 1, 2010, for oil, shortening and margarine used in spreads or for frying. Restaurants could continue using trans fats to deep-fry yeast dough and in cake batter until Jan. 1, 2011.
In both California and Oregon, trans fats already have been banished from school food.
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While California is only one state, it is a big state and often a trendsetter for the nation. Thus, the trans fat bans are likely to spread in the near future.
That is troublesome in some respects. From a libertarian point of view, people ought to be able to eat largely what they choose, even if it is unhealthy. While states should require restaurants and other food suppliers to provide information to consumers about ingredients, the decision should be up to consumers.
We also worry about which products governments might focus on. Trends seem to affect the foods we regard as healthy or unhealthy, and trends shift. For example, eggs, once a no-no, now are back on the list of healthy foods.
But trans fats are found on most nutritionists' hit lists, and they appear likely to stay there. Trans fats occur only in small amounts in natural food; they are mostly a man-made concoction, created by hydrogenation, where the atomic structure of fats are changed to make them less susceptible to spoilage.
But trans fat has been found to be even a larger health risk than saturated fat because it reduces so-called good cholesterol. A 2006 review of trans fat studies by the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that there was a strong connection between consumption of trans fats and heart disease, as well as a link to diabetes, obesity, infertility in women and some types of cancer.
Doctors say that trans fats are like cigarettes, with no safe level of consumption. And, California lawmakers believe, after the ban is fully in place, it should have a positive effect on public health.
True, perhaps, but we're hesitant to endorse state food police governing what we eat.