Questionable methods for protecting consumers

Consumer activists rejoiced recently when the Food and Drug Administration, responding to a 9-year-old petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, decided to remove trans fatty acids from the category of foods “generally recognized as safe.” Ironically, food activists actually helped promote the use of hydrogenated fats in foods to begin with, which raises the question of whether an outright ban could ultimately do more harm than good.

The issue dates back to the 1970s, when some consumer groups pressured food companies to reduce the use of animal fats, which contained saturated fat. The food companies responded with trans fatty acids. The focus on trans fats since then serves as a perfect example of the wrong way to solve nutrition problems, although it has been the American approach for decades.

{mosads}Every five or 10 years, groups of experts and advocates seem to select certain foods, ingredients, additives, contaminants or macronutrients, and then demonize them as the major causes of heart disease, obesity or cancer. Then, when either the science changes, or people just get bored, the groups move onto the next villain. These strategies don’t work, don’t help and usually makes things worse.

The problem with this approach is that most people fail to recognize the complex nature of food and foodstuffs and how they interact with consumer choice.

There are three basic principles that apply: First, all foods have risks and benefits. Second, if people stop eating one food, they will eat another. And third, if the specifics of the first two aren’t known when targeting a particular item, one is likely to exacerbate the situation by waging these targeted wars.

Let’s look at the first principle. Fish is considered a healthy, good source of protein. But fish also contains contaminants like mercury (a risk) and Omega-3 fatty acids (a benefit). Fish can also be fairly healthy when steamed but not so much when fried — and, of course, that depends on what it is fried in. When advocacy groups (and the government) warn consumers to stay away from fish because of minute amounts of mercury, they will eat something else, following the second principle.

In order to know whether this warning makes sense, one must examine all of the risks and benefits of eating fish — depending on how it is prepared — as well as all of the risks and benefits of what people will use as a substitute.

To make it more complex, the risks and benefits will vary by individual. So the warnings to women of childbearing years about consuming fish could very likely turn out to be bad advice because the levels of mercury are so tiny.

Years ago, the TV show “60 Minutes” did a special on the carcinogenic risks of the pesticide Alar in apples, perhaps reversing the old adage that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” The risk was tiny, but what did kids end up eating instead of all of those apples?

Food activists went after sodas recently, without any concern for the caloric content of the replacements, such as sports drinks or juice (which have about the same number of calories as soda).

Several decades ago, groups deemed eggs bad because of dietary cholesterol, but we later learned that the science wasn’t exactly right about eggs. Then nuts were bad because of their high fat content, but now they’re considered healthy.

The same problem can happen with food safety issues. A few years ago the FDA warned people about foods that might contain a pathogen, listeria monocytogenes. The agency did a risk assessment that ranked foods according to how likely they were to contain this nasty bug. Milk was third on the list because of a contamination incident, but even the FDA couldn’t bring itself to warn people to stay away from milk, based on its nutritional value versus potential substitutes.

More recently, based on just one study, the Department of Agriculture targeted potatoes as a primary cause of obesity.

Trans fatty acids might be the latest target by activists but, as we can see, the list is pretty extensive. Nutrition is a complex, tricky business, and we need to be very sure before we go out and warn people about individual foods, ingredients, nutrients or pathogens. Outright bans have the potential to do much more damage.

Williams is director of policy research with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and formerly the Food and Drug Administration’s director for social sciences at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.


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