NARDI: Final trimming of the (trans)fat

Tom Nardi

As many of you know, Dining Services made an executive decision earlier this year about the type of food it would serve. It decided to ban trans fats. Or, as is more appropriate, it decided to ban partially hydrogenated oils. While the difference may seem to be only semantics, it represents a bigger part of the debate.

Whenever an opponent of the trans-fat ban speaks up, it is usually done in the context of freedom of choice – as it was in the infamous mass e-mails that started this commotion. First, I’d like to point out the irony of using this argument on a campus that adheres to the letter of the Catholic Church’s anti-choice teachings on sex and reproductive decisions. But my larger point is that this appeal to choice misses the boat completely on why there is a movement to ban trans fats. They are unnatural and unhealthy.

Partially hydrogenated oils are created when naturally occurring vegetable oils, such as soybean oil and peanut oil, are manipulated in order to provide longer shelf life for foods, better results in deep-fat-fryers and, of course, food texture. And that would all be well and grand except that when destroying natural oils, food companies create a health menace.

Researchers at Harvard had this to say: “By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural unhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiologic evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,000 premature deaths annually.”

Villanova Dining Services isn’t alone in banning trans fats. New York City has, Philadelphia has, Chicago may and many Main Line fast-food restaurants have as well; notably KFC, McDonald’s and Wendy’s have either eliminated trans fats or are in the process of doing so. Walt Disney Company has also announced it is phasing out the product. These decisions were not made to destroy consumer choice; they were made to protect consumer health.

The choice argument assumes that people can make intelligent decisions about their health. That carries a lot of weight, because most people like to think they are smart, and following that, they are smart about their health decisions. But that’s easily proven false. Americans are the fattest group of people that have ever walked the earth. But more specifically, whereas nutritionists recommend we consume no more than 1 percent of our caloric intake as trans fats, we currently consume about twice that amount. So clearly, we can’t make good decisions on our own.

Far be it from me to lecture anyone on good health. I am and have been very overweight and would consider it a major accomplishment to make it past 40 without a heart attack. But in all seriousness, as someone who is overweight, I can assure all you health nuts that claiming that, en masse, we can make good decisions about health is ludicrous. Of course there will be some who can, but for the vast majority, that isn’t the case. And that’s what these bans are aimed at doing: making life easier for the vast majority.

When we scream about choice and ignore the realities of the argument, it is easy to misjudge the situation. Do you want Doritos? Of course! Do you think you should be able to eat them at will? Of course! But don’t you also want to not die of an early heart attack? We need to remember that this decision wasn’t made to spite us. It was actually made in our best interests, whether we choose to accept that or not. And hey, you can still go buy Doritos at Genuardi’s or even the Shell station if you really have a hankering for heart disease. So please, can’t we let the trans-fat ban debate go?


Tom Nardi is a junior political science major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].