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6th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 6, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

In the mid-1960s my father developed chest pains, and so the Wolf family was formally introduced to trans fats –– by our family doctor. The butter with which we slathered our morning toast and cooked our eggs was now a no-no. Instead, we were solemnly told we should substitute margarine, a trans fat then thought of as a healthy substitute for the far more dangerous — and better tasting — butter. Trans fats are in the oil that many restaurants now use to fry potatoes and other things to delicious crispness.

Now unlike my old family doctor, I am not suggesting that trans fat is a health food or even good for you. In fact, I am prepared to concede that trans fat is not good for you. Alas, most things that taste good aren’t good for you. But how bad are these things really?

The answer is simple, at least to those willing to step back and see the big picture. As we are assaulted by all of these modern day epidemics, caused by what we eat, drink, and breathe, mysteriously we are living longer. And as we are being afflicted by these strangely benign epidemics, we are somehow enjoying our longer lives consuming the very delicious things that are supposedly killing us.

My father somehow survived the bad advice of his doctor and lived to the age of 83, not incredibly old by today’s standards, but a lot older than anyone might have predicted when he was born in 1915. And he didn’t succumb to heart disease. Would he have lived longer had he not replaced his butter with the margarine?

Ironically, the restaurants that today are frying in trans fats are doing so largely because the last generation of food police recommended trans fats as a healthy alternative to saturated fats for frying.

The issue here is not really health, but freedom. How far are we willing to go to let government decide what we eat and drink? Trans fats today, butter tomorrow?

Mayor Bloomberg has declared war on trans fats. Not getting voluntary compliance, he proposes an outright ban.

On the other side of City Hall, the chairman of the City Council’s Health Committee is proposing legislation that will use the zoning ordinance to limit the number of fast-food restaurants. Does that include Chinese takeout? Not today, but who can tell about tomorrow?

Up the river in Albany, the Legislature is just chomping at the bit to ban the production of foie gras, a gourmet delicacy created through a centuries-old process of force-feeding ducks to enlarge their livers. Despite the fact that this is a significant industry in an economically depressed area of our state, the foie gras producers are poised to capitulate. If we can ban foie gras because a small cadre of animal rights activists objects, how long will it be until pressure is brought to bear for government action against all slaughter of animals for food?

The other night on the evening news, Channel 2, ran a segment in which a parade of “experts” was interviewed, all gushing over the health benefits of organic food. Even these experts acknowledged that there is no evidence to back up any of these health claims, and none discussed the fate of the hundreds sickened by E. coli which somehow found its way into organically produced spinach.

Now one can raise some real questions about the production of organic foods that have health implications. We are condoning fertilizing crops with “natural” products that naturally contain things like E. coli. We eschew medicating animals to protect against infection, perhaps infections that will spread to the human population. And unlike the speculation that trans fat is dangerous, at least one unfortunate person has come to a premature end due to organically produced spinach. Why aren’t Mayor Bloomberg and Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden guarding the city line to prevent the importation of the killer vegetables?

The spinach incident should offer the mayor a healthy lesson. It wasn’t government but the marketplace that, at least temporarily, removed spinach from the marketplace. If I fear french fries prepared in trans fats, I will not patronize such places. It is my choice. But if I think that the sensual pleasure of consuming a crisp fry may be worth taking what appears to be a minimal risk, that should be my choice as well.

The newspapers and airwaves have been filled with stories these past months about the rights and freedoms of a handful of very bad people, now residents of an American detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot less interest over the rights and freedoms of the vast majority of us whose right to eat and drink what we choose is under attack. If the proposals emanating from the mayor and City Council are accepted, the war against these freedoms will only expand. I guarantee that the food police will not stop at trans fats and fast-food restaurants.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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