Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, December 06, 2004

What About Logic? - One Stop Shopping For Bad Arguments Against Banning Trans-Fats

I've already talked about the trans-fat ban over on the e-group but today's column (subscription required) by Lysiane Gagnon was so irritating that I had to devote an entire post to it.

She starts with a multi-paragraph ode to Tenderflake, and then says:

Practically all parliamentarians blindly followed the NDP into this new crusade, as if the house was on fire and we were all about to die from an overdose of trans fats.

1) Did the people who voted against the ban 'blindly oppose it' - or does the word 'blindly' only apply to people with the wrong opinion?

2) Crusade? - hyperbole anyone? Actually, crusade is one of those shorthand words columnists seem to use when they want to convey an impression without backing it up with an argument. I'll be sure to include an entry for it when I compile my Canadian columnist dictionary (someday, someday).

3) Presumably, if they thought the house was on fire, they wouldn't have voted to set up a committee to study the issue for a year to come up with a sensible way to implement a ban (OK, they're politicians, they might indeed do that if the house was on fire, but I still think it's a misleading impression of the action they took here).

Next up:

But, hey, let's calm down. A pie for eight persons requires two tablespoons of shortening. This makes a quarter of a tablespoon a person — not enough, certainly, to end up in a cardiac ward!

And I suppose if a typical Canadian's average lifetime exposure to trans-fat was to eat an eighth of a pie, this might possibly be relevant. Joking aside, the reason for the ban is that scientists figure thousands of Canadians have ended up in the cardiac ward due to trans-fat consumption.

On a roll, she continues with my favourite bit:

The same, actually, could be said of any food, even of supposedly healthy food. Taken in excess, anything can be bad for your health, even milk, yogurt, lentils, fibre, tomatoes and olive oil. On Friday, this newspaper's health page even warned us that drinking too much water could be terrible for our kidneys. A healthy diet is made up of a little bit of everything — including, yes, an occasional bowl of oily chips or a handful of fat-laden cookies. The only rule lies in a single word: moderation.

I'm no health expert, but presumably Dr. Walter Willett (from the Harvard School of Public Health) is. He's quoted in an article on the CTV website as saying: ""trans fats have no place in a healthy diet."

Look, it's simple, if something is good for you, it still needs to be taken in moderation. This DOES NOT apply if something is just plain bad for you.

She goes on:
Why was Parliament in such a hurry to pass a motion calling for a full ban of processed trans fats from food sold in Canada within a year? Even though the food industry has started to move in this direction, it hasn't yet developed acceptable substitutes to ensure texture and shelf life of pre-packaged food (only people who don't cook and don't shop think these are unimportant considerations).

Is it maybe just possible that food isn't meant to last for a year?

What is certain is that consumers will absorb the cost of the research. This may be why no other country except Denmark resorted to such a radical solution — not even France, which is at the forefront of the battle against genetically modified organisms and where people are highly sensitive about the quality of their food.

Or maybe it's because we are only starting to realize the true impact of trans-fat and Canada is ahead of the curve for once. Or maybe it's because the food lobby is stronger in other countries. And to be honest, if my government decided to leave something harmful in my food supply because otherwise I'd have to absorb the increased cost of accelerating research which was being done anyway, I wouldn't be all that impressed. Bring on the research costs - if a Mars bar is still worth it to me, I'll buy it, if not, I'll buy something else.

The French have adopted the sensible solution of requiring clear labelling, so consumers know what they are buying. Are Canadians so dumb they couldn't learn to decipher labels and make an informed choice?

This is a straw man, the problem is not being informed (it's easy to pick out trans-fat in an ingredient list already), the problem is having a choice. A label won't help if all your choices contain the same ingredient in the same quantity (as they do now). And it won't help at restaurants, when visiting friends or pretty much any time you eat something you didn't shop for yourself.

After a bit of rambling we get to the big finale:

"And what about logic? In Canada, tobacco products are freely sold, even though they are noxious and a major cause of cancers. Alcohol is also freely sold, even though it can lead to countless diseases. And now Parliament intends to decriminalize the use of pot, which can be harmful to teenagers. The country's leaders, meanwhile, are all worked up about Oreo cookies. This is more than illogical — it's ridiculous!!"

OK, it's a bit late now, but what about logic? Is there a logical distinction to be made between tobacco/alcohol/pot and trans-fat?

The short answer is yes. Tobacco/alcohol/pot are all stand-alone products which people consume knowing the risks involved because the benefits of the harmful substance outweigh the risk (in their opinion). Everybody can make their own choice to consume or not consume these products without it affecting anything other than their consumption of that specific product. And because people want these benefits, banning these items will lead to a black market.

Now consider lead. Nobody ever went out to consume lead saying, I know this lead is going to kill me but I just like it too much so it's worth it to me. People wanted to paint a wall so they went out and bought paint, or they wanted to drive a car so they went and bought gas.

Lead is now banned (in most cases) but tobacco/alcohol/pot are not.

Which one is trans-fat more like. A stand-alone product you consume because it offers benefits to you which outweigh the risks? Or an ingredient in another product which you use for a purpose unrelated to the effect of the harmful substance.

More to the point, will banning trans-fat lead to the development of a black market because people are willing to pay so much extra for products with a longer shelf life?

Banning trans-fat isn't a crusade, it hasn't been rushed into, it's not illogical and it's definitely not ridiculous with two exclamation points - it's just a sensible idea that will make life a little better and a little healthier for the people of Canada.

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  • Having already talked about it on another group I'm sure you're already aware of Voortman's cookies leading the way in banning trans-fats. If not here's a link:

    As a side note several years ago I toured Voortman's on an elementary school field trip!

    By Blogger Spearin, at 8:26 PM  

  • I also appreciate New York Fries for their trans-fat free (and tasty) French Fries. I'm not sure if other fast food fries have trans-fats or if they are just a little slow on the marketing side, but I'm leaning toward the former.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:23 PM  

  • OK, I should have read the story you linked to (thanks by the way) first, and then commented - I see that other fast food joints do indeed have piles of trans-fat.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:28 PM  

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