Banning Trans Fats Is Not the Answer to Obesity

Published March 1, 2007

As the debate over trans fats continues, a growing number of restaurants are joining the ranks of Jason’s Deli, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Starbuck’s, and Taco Bell in deciding to rid their menus of them.

Those establishments have opted to use trans-fat-free alternatives such as canola oil. Manufacturers are scurrying to provide them with replacements for partially hydrogenated oils.

In November, Dow AgroSciences announced plans to increase production of its alternative oil by 30 percent over last year, to one billion pounds, in order to meet the growing demand.

Though many restaurants are voluntarily eliminating trans fats, in other cases governments are giving them no choice.

Proliferating Bans

In December, New York City passed an ordinance banning trans fats from restaurant food, set to take effect in July. Several other cities–including Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Los Angeles, California; Louisville, Kentucky; and Washington, DC–are considering similar rules.

In addition, in January New York state Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn) proposed legislation that would extend the city ban statewide. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Washington are currently considering similar bills.

Replacement Products

“We developed the canola sunflower program to create new oils that would have novel fatty acid profiles and deliver the needed taste but not require hydrogenation,” explained David Dzisak, Global Oils Leader for Dow AgroSciences.

“Therefore, the oils are trans-fat free,” Dzisak continued. “We have also been able to develop a lower amount of saturated fat in our canola oil. The amount of saturated fat in them is half of what is found in soybean oil, which is the most widely used oil today.”

Partially hydrogenated oil produces trans-fatty acids. During the hydrogenation process, liquid oils become solids as several hydrogen atoms are added to each molecule. Restaurants use the solid oils because they are cheap and have a long shelf life. Critics of trans fats claim they clog arteries and lead to dangerous conditions such as obesity and hypertension.

Scientists’ Doubts

Though advocates of the bans say the end is near for trans fats, others say the growing movement to eliminate them isn’t scientifically justified.

“The fact that the city of New York banned trans fats and that it’s a consideration in Chicago is unreal,” said Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer-education nonprofit focused on health and lifestyle issues based in Manhattan. “The fact that restaurants can’t use a safe, wholesome product to prepare their foods is staggering. We are talking about margarine and cooking oils–not chemicals.

“As a scientist, I get all these letters saying the media is hyping this up, but I don’t think it’s the media’s fault,” Whelan continued. “It’s the science community’s fault. I’ve talked to a number of scientists who say they know this is wrong but want to stay out of it.”

Growing Concern

Whelan said trans fats are no more dangerous than any other calories.

“We need to look at the real causes of heart disease and work with the controllable ones,” Whelan said. “Diabetes, high serum cholesterol and bad lipid levels, obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure are controllable causes of heart disease. If you have high cholesterol, you need to be on a statin. Keeping your weight down is another way to handle heart disease.

“The looming obesity problem in our country is very scary, but there is no relation between trans fats and obesity,” Whelan continued. “Yet, that has been a major catalyst to this movement against them. The truth is trans fats have nine calories per gram, just like any other fat.”

Pressure Groups

Stephen Joseph, CEO of, LLC and, Inc.–two advocacy groups based in California aiming to rid the U.S. and Canadian restaurant industries of trans fats–cited an informal poll of 3,200 people conducted by the Wall Street Journal last autumn that showed 61 percent of those surveyed supported a trans-fat ban in their city.

“Three years ago, when we went after Oreos, people scoffed and laughed, but we got rid of the trans fats in that product, and we’ve gone a long way in the battle overall,” Joseph said.

Government Interference

Government intervention in restaurant menus does not sit well with free-market advocates.

“If public policy is being enforced, you need evidence that the target is harmful,” Whelan said. “Yet this is not the case for trans fats. Government was integral in [reducing] communicable disease, and now they are focusing in on chronic disease. The problem is these are diseases that involve personal choices. That’s different than putting chlorine in the water. This is crossing the line.”

The jury is still out over how wide the net banning trans fats will be cast. But experts say no matter what you eat, the key to staying healthy is calories in versus calories out.

“What we really have to do is educate people on the number of calories they should consume in a day,” Whelan said. “Banning trans fats and labeling menus with calorie content is not going to make a difference if people don’t know what to do with the information.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

American Council on Science and Health,

“Would You Support a Trans Fat Ban in Your City?” Wall Street Journal Forum poll, September 2006,