Trans Fat Lawsuit Against KFC Based on Thin Science

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Published June 15, 2006

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sued fast food purveyor KFC this week claiming the food chain’s use of cooking oil containing trans fats is unhealthy.

Although KFC said the lawsuit was frivolous and plans to fight it in court, it’s not clear that KFC understands how frivolous the lawsuit really is.

In its lawsuit, CSPI asked a Kentucky judge to order KFC to use other types of cooking oils and to make sure customers know how much trans fats KFC’s food contains. CSPI’s lawsuit alleges that trans fats – vegetable oils that have been altered to be firm at room temperature – increase the risk of heart disease.

In announcing that KFC would fight the lawsuit, a company spokesperson said that KFC is looking at using other types of oil for cooking, but it is committed to maintaining “KFC’s unique taste and flavor,” according to the Associated Press.

But there’s no need for KFC to switch cooking oils because the entire trans fat scare is based on junk science. While there are studies that purport to link trans fats with heart disease, when you look at the data and methodology behind the studies, their claims rapidly fall apart.

Studies indicate that consumption of trans fats temporarily elevate levels of so-called “bad” cholesterol and temporarily lower levels of so-called “good cholesterol.” This simple blood chemistry is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the significance of the temporary change in blood cholesterol levels.

Trans fat alarmists would have you believe that these transient blood chemistry changes increase your chances of having a heart attack. The available scientific data, however, don’t back up that assertion. A number of studies of human populations have attempted to statistically associate consumption of trans fats with increased heart attack risk, but the only conclusion that can be fairly drawn from any of them is that, if there is a risk, it’s too small to measure through standard epidemiologic methodology.

One of the major challenges for researchers is to tease out the potential impacts of trans fats from other dietary, lifestyle and genetic factors that might be relevant to heart disease. So far, it’s been an impossible task.

The failure of human studies to support the alarmism was amply illustrated a few years ago when the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) jumped on the trans fat alarmist bandwagon. While touting studies showing that trans fats temporarily altered blood chemistry, the IOM glaringly did not cite any studies showing that trans fats posed any real risk to real people.

Despite the absence of real world evidence that trans fats are dangerous, the alarmism continues. There are at least two explanations for this phenomenon.

First, it’s been clear to the dietary research community for years – although they’ve been reluctant to share this information with the public – that the scare over dietary fat intake has been over-hyped. The final nail in the coffin of dietary fat hysteria came earlier this year when a major study concluded that low-fat diets provide no demonstrable health benefits over high-fat diets. So the trans fat scare constitutes a whole new way for researchers to scare the public about fat and to keep their government grants coming.

Second, the trans fat scare is a great new rationale for food manufacturers to introduce new and, perhaps, more expensive products that they market as “good for you.” Food companies learned long ago that there’s more profit in reformulating and marketing new and “healthier” products rather than trying to fight the bad science wielded by the well-funded, well-entrenched and essentially unaccountable public health bureaucracy.

Of course, the trans fat scare doesn’t work for every company in the food industry. Some can’t reformulate. Several years ago due to pressure from CSPI, McDonald’s announced that it would switch cooking oils to eliminate trans fats. But CSPI wound up suing the company after McDonalds could not find a substitute cooking oil that met its standards.

There are two other facts to consider as you are bombarded with media reports and food company advertising about the alleged dangers of trans fats.

Thirty years ago, the diet police scared us away from animal fat-based butter and began singing the praises of what they said was a healthier alternative, trans fat-based margarine. Now, the diet police have done an about-face and want to scare us away from those same trans fats – all the while omitting mention that their butter scare was bogus from the get-go.

So what exactly would be the basis for trusting the alarmists this time around?

Also worth considering is the fact that CSPI has been in the business of scaring people about the food they eat for more than 30 years. From labeling Fettucine Alfredo as “heart attack on a plate” to claiming that fat substitute olestra might make truck drivers sick enough to lose control of their vehicles while driving, to claiming caffeinated beverages cause miscarriages, CSPI has been and remains on the cutting edge of dietary absurdity.

It’s unfortunate that KFC has to waste its time and money defending itself from CSPI’s groundless lawsuit. On the other hand, KFC has a good opportunity to expose not only the trans fat myth but also CSPI’s antics in a court of law. Let’s hope KFC doesn’t chicken out.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com, CSRWatch.com. He is a junk science expert, an advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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