Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Don't blame the trans fats

John Tierney has an interesting article at the NYT about the paradox of supposedly healthier foods inducing people into making unhealthy choices, and how the government can exacerbate this phenomenon. After doing a relatively non-rigorous survey of New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers, researcher Pierre Chandon found that foods with a "trans fat free" label on them were more likely to have their healthiness overestimated by New Yorkers (who were subjected to a recent public debate about trans-fats), whereas those visiting from outside the area were better at guessing the caloric value "of an Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad and a 20-ounce cup of regular Pepsi." The results suggest that the NYC government's action against trans fats in restaurants might have done some harm, in that food makers can now exploit the fact that their products don't have trans fats, labeling their food as such and inducing customers into thinking that they're healthier than they really are.

Tierney hints at the inanity of the trans fat ban in the first place, in mentioning that some scientists believe that there are worse ones out there. And whenever I hear debates over particular nutritional elements being good or bad (first it was fats and calories, then carbs, now trans fats, with dozens of fads in between), I think about this NYT Magazine cover story from early 2007 about how little we really know about food, and how it's much more important to follow general guidelines – the kind that you don't need a nutritional analysis for – than to harp on the details.

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