Sunday, October 21, 2007

An unfree country: The USA

What do Marriott, McDonald’s and New York City have in common? They’re all moving to protect you from trans fats in your diet. The difference is the first two are voluntary initiatives aimed to create customer goodwill, while New York’s dictates your customer’s choice. While America weighed the pros and cons of the Iraq surge strategy, New York City banned so-called “trans fats” in all food service establishments effective July 1. This aggressive assault on hydrogenated vegetable oils has an almost-militaristic feel to it, as secondary fronts are also being opened in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois and Michigan, and “voluntary” trans fat phase-outs are popping up everywhere.

Sophisticated diners debate the culinary merits of trans fats (do those fries really taste better?), but that’s not the issue. No one laments trans fats on health grounds, though they offer a marginal cost advantage in food production and preparation. But when we recall that trans fats (now tied to unhealthy high cholesterol) were introduced as a replacement for animal fats (tied to unhealthy high cholesterol), we realize the issue is not this food input or that, but whether we as consumers have the right to make informed choices, even choices that may not be “nutritionally correct.”

There are good arguments why we should avoid trans fats — or at least limit their intake. Still, anything can kill in the wrong dosage: take carrot juice (a gallon could cause a fatal, toxic Vitamin A overdose) or high fructose corn syrup (merely a cost-saver, and all too effective in helping our youth grow horizontally rather than vertically).

Fearing high cholesterol, New York City did what seems to come naturally to the city administration under Mayor Michael Bloomberg: It proscribed nasty trans fats from city businesses serving food, just like it dictated that its businesses may no longer allow their patrons to smoke. If the new law seems a logical extension of the smoking ban, it is still more worrisome. With smoking, at least there is the pretense (with some research backing) that one does not just forbid the smoker to harm himself or herself, but that smoking puts others — employees and patrons of the establishment — in harm’s way. A specious argument, but with superficial merit. Even with smoking, consumer choice should probably still rule (perhaps leavened by smoking-related health insurance for workers and superior ventilation), although there is residual resistance to laws regulating personal behavior that, hypothetically, can injure or offend others.

But with trans fats, there is pure victimless crime: The consumer can only injure himself (the cholesterol linkage implies higher risk of coronary disease). Good intentions notwithstanding, it is difficult to see how New York’s patronizing, paternalistic interference doesn’t exceed rational bounds the state should observe in prescribing what its citizens may or may not consume.

If the state, either out of benevolence or fears of a heightened burden on the health care system, wishes that its residents be healthy, aggressive information and labeling campaigns ought to do the trick. The problem is not that trans fats are being “outlawed,” but that elected officials presume a right (and power) to “help” their citizen with lifestyle choices far beyond the proper purview of government. An equally well-inspired city council might think it a great idea if its citizens were only allowed to purchase organic food, or forbidden to engage in a number of high-risk sexual activities. Both would fit right into the Zeitgeist of the modern liberal community — neopuritan liberalism, choice and personal freedom be damned.

Here in the nation’s capital, just before the city also banned smoking in restaurants and bars, Council Member Carol Schwartz copied the anti-smoking language and proposed to outlaw alcohol consumption in restaurants and bars. She was roundly criticized, but her crisp sarcasm made the point better than any speech could have. Presuming legislative omniscience (and a scientific certainty that doesn’t exist), we are framing a one-size-fits-all lifestyle unbefitting a country founded on principles of liberty, freedom and individual choice. One notes, ruefully, that the finely crafted Snickers bar is labeled as containing “partially hydrogenated soybean oil and/or hydrogenated palm kernel oil.” Better start stockpiling right now.


An unfree country: The UK

The television chef Prue Leith has called for pupils to be barred from leaving school at lunchtime to prevent them buying junk food. Ms Leith, chairwoman of the School Food Trust, the Government's programme charged with improving school meals in England, argued that locking the school gates would ensure children ate healthier meals or packed lunches rather than burgers or chips. "If you can keep them inside, then you can begin to educate them about eating," she said. "It's a drastic measure but we are facing a drastic situation. We are denying children the real pleasure of eating and cooking good food. She added: "I agree that I am being rather nanny-ish but I think children need some nannying," she added.

She also advised parents to give pocket money to children in one go on a Saturday, rather than in instalments through the week so they would buy a long-lasting item such as a CD or baseball cap rather than snacks or chocolate.

Only 40 per cent of children eat school dinners. The majority opt for packed lunches or street food. Jamie Oliver's high-profile campaign to improve school nutrition during the Channel 4 series in which he exposed notoriously unhealthy Turkey Twizzlers, has not solved the problem. In many cases, hot meals have been replaced by packed lunches which, said Ms Leith, tended to be less healthy because their ingredients had been bought on supermarket shopping trips when parents were swayed by "pester power".

A new drive by the School Food Trust to encourage children to try the healthier meals and raise the number of pupil diners above 50 per cent got under way yesterday. The Million Meals campaign was launched by Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, at St Augustine's Secondary School in Kilburn, north-west London.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].


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