Oil change should be voluntary

Trans fats are making headlines this week, not because they are bad for you — that much we know — but rather because some politicians, in their infinite wisdom, want to dictate the way New York restaurants prepare their food.


To recap the issue, cooking oil (mostly made from soybeans in this country)  is cheap and plentiful, but it contains linolenic acid, which makes the oil go bad over time. So to stabilize it, food processors use hydrogenation — improving shelf life, but also causing trans fats, a known artery-clogging health problem.


Now the New York Health Department, overseeing the nation's largest restaurant market, has proposed a new law that gives proprietors six months to switch to oils and shortening that have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. After 18 months all other food items would need to contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.


Lots of New York health experts have come forward to proclaim the evils of trans fats, in case anyone in the Big Apple questioned the validity of this proposal.  A lot of these do-gooders claim to be defending the helpless consumer, who knows not what he eats when he enters his favorite dining establishment.


The packaged-foods industry has already moved in this direction, namely because the FDA now requires the companies to disclose trans fats on their packaging. This may be more of an indirect mandate, but it is still voluntary.


The U.S. soybean industry has done a downright fine job of working with research, food companies and processors to come up with a low-linolenic oil that will bring down trans fats. Low-lin acreage will double or triple next year to at least 2.5 million acres.


But switching to healthier cooking oils won't be as simple as it may seem. Every alternative has a downside, from a change in taste to cost or lack of supply. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, McDonald's announced four years ago its intention to change the fat it uses to make its fries, but so far it's been just that- good intentions. That's because so far, the alternatives make the fries taste different — and that would be a bigger marketing blunder than "New Coke•bCrLf 21 years ago. Can you say "major marketing flop?•bCrLf


I suppose on the outset, a mandate to get rid of trans fats would seem to be a positive for soy growers. But where does it end? Studies show that flossing your teeth reduces disease and helps you live longer. Do you want the dental police knocking on your door each morning to see if you've flossed? I don't think so.


No one likes unneeded regulations, especially farmers. We already have government incentives in place to prop up the growing renewable fuels industry. Those mandates already indirectly help farmers who grow corn and soybeans. It would be better if renewable fuels could stand on their own economic merit.


A better option is to let the market do its thing. If your restaurant wants to use healthier oils and shortening with low trans fats, then put it on the menu and let people choose.  That's the idea behind packaged food companies who must now note trans fats on their labels. Simple competition is driving this trend. Consumers are smarter than we give them credit.


Do New Yorkers really want the government to play head Chef? In our zeal to make everything better, we sometimes forget that choice is how a free market operates.


First kiss


This was in my email box this morning so I had to share it with you. Some girls kiss a frog and hope it turns into a prince. Others•


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