Many are laughing at the just-withdrawn lawsuit to ban Oreo cookies (search) as yet another example of frivolous litigation. But news reports have completely missed the lawsuit's fundamental deficiency — its basis in junk science.
California lawyer Stephen Joseph alleged that Oreos are harmful and should be banned because they're made with substances called trans fatty acids or "trans fats."
After withdrawing the suit, Joseph told The Associated Press, "It's no longer necessary to continue the lawsuit because at the time the lawsuit was filed nobody knew about trans fat. Now everybody knows about trans fat."
Trans fats are vegetable oils altered to be firm at room temperature. They're found in vegetable shortening and foods cooked or made with shortening such as pastries, crackers and fried foods.
Despite almost 40 years of commercial use, the National Academy of Sciences' (search) Institute of Medicine concluded in a 2002 report that trans fats are too dangerous to be consumed in any amount. The IOM alleged trans fats raise blood levels of low-density lipoprotein — the supposedly "bad" cholesterol — and thereby increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
Because trans fats are unavoidable in ordinary diets, the implications of the IOM report are pretty radical. Margarine, for instance, would be unsafe in any quantity — never mind that nutrition nannies have spent the last 30 years weaning us off of butter in favor of this supposedly "heart-healthy" substitute.
The IOM's conclusions, however, don't have much scientific substance.
First, there is no credible evidence that trans fats increase heart disease risk in humans. None of eight human population studies come close to linking trans fats with heart disease. No doubt this is why the IOM barely even acknowledged the studies' existence in its report and didn't rely on them in the slightest in forming its conclusions.
Instead, the IOM relied on studies reporting that trans fat consumption temporarily increased cholesterol levels. This is a far cry, though, from scientifically linking trans fats with heart disease. It's not evident that elevated cholesterol necessarily leads to heart disease and death, particularly in otherwise healthy people.
In the much-vaunted Framingham Heart Study (search) — where 5,200 men and women in Framingham, Mass., have been extensively studied in over 1,000 published reports since 1948 — high cholesterol wasn't associated with increased heart disease risk after age 47.
After age 47, in fact, those whose cholesterol went down had the highest risk of 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 University researcher Walter Willett acknowledged in a recent New York Times Magazine article that though our cholesterol levels have been falling, the incidence of heart disease hasn't.
"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 acknowledgment that the cholesterol-heart disease link is more myth than fact is particularly noteworthy, since he is largely responsible for fabricating the trans fat myth.
Willett has co-authored many, if not most of the studies claiming to link trans fats with heart-disease risk. Despite his claims, these studies invariably fail to report a reliable association between trans fat consumption and heart disease incidence.
Conveniently, Willett also co-authors review articles of the trans fat studies — including his own — in which he reinforces his dubious conclusions.
Whatever happened to "independent" scientific review?
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 pointed out in the New York Times Magazine article, the simplistic notion that dietary fat is bad was a political and business judgment, not a scientific one.
Despite ambiguous science, a Senate committee led by Sen. George McGovern issued a 1977 report advising Americans to consume less fat to avoid "killer diseases," then 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 — a boon to consumer choice but not necessarily one with a beneficial health impact.
So the attack on Oreos has quite an infamous pedigree — from the hysterical McGovern to the junk science-fueled Walter Willett to a money-grubbing personal injury lawyer. Joseph says on his Web site, after all, "We are looking for corporate sponsors... we need all the financial backing that we can get."
Now you know about trans fats.
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).