• A thought experiment on FDA involvement in food additives

    I’d like you to consider a thought experiment:

    Imagine there was a food additive that was thought to reduce the risk of breast cancer in some women. It also made food last longer and taste better. But then it turned out that a growing body of evidence showed that it actually increased the risk of breast cancer. Over time, many organizations started to voluntarily remove the additive from foods, but it still existed. And today, there would be few people who disputed that this additive increased the risk of developing breast cancer.

    Do you think there would be anyone defending this additive’s use in food? Can you imagine anyone arguing that women could “just avoid it if they wanted to”? Can you imagine the outrage if they allowed this to be a major additive in the food they serve children in school lunches?

    I ask, because if you changed “breast cancer” to “heart disease” (and “women” to “people”), I’ve just described the current situation with trans fats. They’re being banned, but I keep getting tweets and emails from people who think this is government over-reach.

    I don’t know why heart disease gets a pass in this country. I really do believe that if trans fats were a carcinogen, we wouldn’t be having a debate. They’d be gone. But because they only cause “heart disease”, they’re a “lifestyle choice” that some people will fight for.

    The trans fats used in processed foods are created in a lab. They’re not natural, they’re not required, and they increase the risk of heart disease significantly. Don’t talk to me about banning nutrients next. Those are needed by the body. Their problem is one of moderation, and I’ve been against the soda ban from the start. This is different.

    For the record, heart attacks kill six times as many women as breast cancer in the US each year. Heart attacks kill a ton of men as well. In fact, more people die of heart disease each year than from all cancers combined.


    • I have not been complaining about the FDA decision, so
      perhaps I should not speak for those who have. However, I suspect
      the complaints should be less “We don’t care about heart disease.
      Leave it to individuals to decide what to eat or avoid”, and more
      “Wait. You are the same people who earlier said that we should
      substitute trans fat for saturated fat because it was safer! Maybe
      you are in need of more humility in your ability to predict the
      health consequences of food choices. Recognizing this, perhaps you
      should stop short of banning foods”

    • @DBH: When you use the phrase “you are the same people,” who exactly are you talking about? The actual scientists are different, and science is a way of knowing, of getting less and less wrong about the world over time. Two generations ago, yes: We thought trans fats were fine. But now we know with near-certainty that they are NOT fine. Humility, as you define it, would entail never accepting that new data should cause us to change our minds.

      @aaron: I find this pretty puzzling too. It’s as if people have the wrong signal detection settings for substances with different properties. People are exquisitively sensitive to the suggestion that something might possibly be carcinogenic. Internet rumors take the place of actual data. People act in ways that reflect a high tolerance for false positives. But for many other kinds of diseases — especially heart disease — people seem willing to endure lots of false negatives.

      As an additional thought experiment, I wonder: If smoking didn’t cause cancer, what would our response have been as a society? If it “only” caused COPD or heart disease, would it have become a pariah habit?

    • Hi Aaron,

      I think an intelligent opponent would say that the proper policy is for the government to require warning information on products that include trans-fats, but not to ban them outright.

      After all, if people are happy to eat trans-fats even with said information provided and in light of the terrible risks, then I guess that’s their preference, right?

      It’s entirely possible that after such a warning so many customers would stop using the product that has tras-fats that the company would voluntarily remove it, but in that case that would have been based on consumer preference.

      What do you think of this argument?

    • Why prefer banning to Pigouvian taxes?

    • 50 years? Hyperbole. Many, probably most are still with us. I know some who are very much alive.

      The question is how sure you have to be to issue national guidelines and how much, if any, more sure you have to be to force people to follow them. How sure would you have to be to recommend wide use of HRT? How much more sure would you have to be to require it? Are we more sure that trans fats are more dangerous than saturated fat than we were that they were safer?

      Beyond informing the public, do we need the government to do more?