In the latest bipartisan offensive by Canada’s food fascists, the House of Commons passed a bill November 23, 2004 to ban the use of “trans fats” in our food supply. The measure passed overwhelmingly, despite weak scientific evidence to justify it. Since trans fats can be found in 40% of the products on supermarket shelves, the consequences will be wrenching for our food industry and the public, who expect better from their Parliamentarians.
Trans fats are created through a process called hydrogenation that adds hydrogen atoms to vegetable oils which turns them into solid fats. The conversion increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods. Food scientists developed trans fats during the backlash against saturated fats that started in the late 1970’s.
Leading this gastronomic crusade was NDP Member of Parliament Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre), who calls trans fats “toxic garbage.” “It’s quite simple and straightforward,” he says. “We don’t need this poison in our food supply.” Not to be outdone as a nutritional nanny, Conservative MP and fellow Manitoban Steven Fletcher (Charleswood-St. James) joined forces with Martin. “If we need to make a choice between the shelf life of people versus the shelf life of doughnuts,” he intones, “the Conservative Party of Canada will support the shelf life of people.”
This dynamic duo from what should be renamed “Banitoba” put aside their supposed ideological differences for the greater good, to combat this insidious “devil-in-the-doughnuts” that supposedly is causing Canadians to drop like flies. Both claim as a reason the strength of the evidence. “Anybody that cares about the scientific argument will be convinced”, says Martin. According to Fletcher, “It has been proven that trans fats are detrimental to human health. It is indisputable. With all the scientists I have come across it is not debated.”
They convinced 191 of their fellow MPs of this, who passed a bill effectively banning trans fats a few days later. No doubt excited about claiming on future campaigns the responsibility for saving thousands of lives a year, they rushed to judgment. But politicians know little of the ins and outs of epidemiology and what actually constitutes scientific proof. In fact, the verdict against trans fats is far from proven.
Simply put, epidemiology is a study of statistics, an imprecise field of research often mistaken for science. Epidemiologists look for correlations between different groups of people, and their lifestyles, and try to find common denominators. But the most important rule in the field is that correlation is not causation. Statistics are not considered scientific proof because there is no way that they can possibly prove cause and effect.
The goal of any epidemiological study is to determine relative risk. In the case of trans fats, none of the studies commonly cited show any kind of significant risk in consuming trans fats. This is the case even before they are adjusted for confounding factors such as age, body mass index, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, physical activity, family histories, high blood cholesterol or myocardial infarction before age 60, and fibre intake. In fact, the main thing these studies have in common is their statistical insignificance.
This is not to say the numbers come in at zero. They never do because they are based on statistical variates. Which those whose livelihoods depend upon creating and maintaining public panic shamelessly exploit. They take an insignificant relative risk number, such as 1.07 for transfats (1.0 is considered 0), and extrapolate it in a mathematical model to create a “virtual” body count of 30,000 people a year in the United States who die from coronary heart disease due to trans fats (the alleged Canadian death toll would come in at 3,000). Such alarmist claims persuade the powers that be to “do something” about it. In truth, it cannot be proven that one person has ever died from trans fats, never mind that many.
Unfortunately for Canadians there is no such thing as a free lunch. Since there is no abundant, affordable supply of substitute oils available, all the product replacements now forced by the ban will inflate the price we pay for groceries, hitting those who can least afford it the hardest.
More worrisome, the lack of real evidence against trans fats will leave us susceptible to retaliatory trade action from all of the countries we do business with. Consider the American response when Canada starts turning back U.S. foods containing trans fats based on a policy based more on politics than on clear scientific evidence.
It is not a good time to poke our biggest trading partner in the rear, for no good reason. Manitoba’s export dependent farmers are already suffering financial hardships due to the BSE related closure of the American border to Canadian cattle. Most recently the province’s most successful value-added food product, the hog sector has been subjected to tariffs, joining other commodities such as wheat and the now infamous softwood lumber in a growing range of U.S. trade harassments.
“Research tells us fourteen out of any ten individuals like chocolate,” quips children’s author Sandra Boynton. When it comes to the regulation of dangerous substances, the Manitoba MPs who finagled the ban on trans fats displayed a gullibility that rivals her audience’s. Canada’s food producers and consumers will pay the price for this juvenile law.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Calgary Herald January 13, 2005.