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The Fat Police Indict Margarine

No amount of margarine is safe to eat. Nor are there safe amounts of vegetable shortening, dairy products, pastries, crackers, fried foods — even breast milk.

That's the latest dubious report from alleged experts at the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine.

These foods contain trans fatty acids, vegetable oils that have been altered to be firm at room temperature. Trans fats, according to the IOM, raise blood levels of LDL cholesterol — the supposedly "bad" cholesterol — and allegedly increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Because trans fatty acids are "unavoidable in ordinary diets," the IOM "recommended this week that trans fatty acid consumption be as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet."

The Food and Drug Administration said it would act as soon as possible to require the labeling of foods containing trans fats.

This situation is best represented by this equation: IOM x FDA = FOOLS2.

First, there is no evidence at all that trans fatty acids increase heart disease risk in humans. None of the six studies of human populations consuming trans fats come close to linking trans fats with heart disease risk.

No doubt this is why the IOM barely even mentioned their existence in its report and didn't rely on them in the slightest to support its conclusion.

Instead, the IOM merely relied on laboratory and clinical studies reporting that trans fat consumption increased LDL cholesterol levels. This is a far cry, though, from linking trans fats with heart disease.

Aside from the absence of human data linking trans fats with heart disease, it's still not clear that elevated cholesterol necessarily leads to heart disease and death.

In the much-vaunted Framingham Heart Study — where 5,200 men and women in Framingham, Mass., have been extensively studied and reported on in over 1,000 published studies since 1948 — high cholesterol was not associated with increased heart disease risk after age 47.

After age 47, in fact, those whose cholesterol went down had the highest risk of having a heart attack. "For each 1 mg/dl drop of cholesterol there was an 11 percent increase in coronary and total mortality," reported the study's authors.

Harvard researcher Walter Willett acknowledged to science writer Gary Taubes in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story, "What If Fat Doesn't Make You Fat," that though our cholesterol levels have been falling, the incidence of heart disease has not.

"That is very disconcerting. It suggests that something else bad is happening," Willett commented.

Yes, well, whatever "bad" is happening, there certainly is no cause to believe that it's trans fats.

Willett's acknowledgement that the cholesterol-heart disease link is more myth than fact is particularly noteworthy since he is largely responsible for railroading trans fats.

Willett co-authored every study that claims to link trans fat consumption with heart disease risk. Despite his claims, these studies invariably report no or weak statistical associations between trans fat consumption and heart disease incidence and do not rule out other risk factors for heart disease that may have influenced the reported results.

Conveniently, Willett also co-authors review articles of the trans fat studies — including his own — in which he reiterates and reemphasizes his junk science-based conclusions.

Is it too much to ask for some independent researcher — that is, someone independent from Willett — to replicate Willett's claims before the FDA and IOM lynch margarine?

My favorite Willett study that fails to link trans fats with heart disease — one involving 90,000 nurses followed for 20 years — also fails to link total fat intake, saturated fat intake, animal fat intake, and cholesterol intake with heart disease.

This is no surprise.

As Taubes pointed out in his article, the simplistic notion that dietary fat is bad was a political and business judgment, not a scientific one.

Despite ambiguous science, in 1977 a Senate committee led by Sen. George McGovern issued a report advising Americans to consume less fat to avoid "killer diseases" supposedly sweeping the country.

The politically dutiful National Institutes of Health soon joined the anti-fat bandwagon, a move that spawned the low-fat food industry.

Here's the question: If the feds have been wrong about butter for the last 25 years, should we now believe them — and Walter Willett — about margarine?

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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