Trans Fat Ban's Economic Impact, from Fries to Soybeans

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This piece from our blog, HealthFactsAndFears, was reprinted January 21, 2007 in the Boca Raton News:

If you've visited our webpage anytime in the last month or so, you know ACSH opposes NYC's ban on transfats in restaurants.

If a simple switch to "healthier" oils would make us healthier, we'd be all for it. But it won't. And will the "healthier" oils have no effect on taste? It's not as if you can fry French fries in olive oil and get the same great-tasting fry. So all of the disruption caused by this ban is just one step down the slippery slope toward banning more food ingredients. (Is high-fructose corn syrup next? Michael Jacobson of Center for Science in the Public Interest isn't showing his hand.)

The trans fat ban would only have clear benefits if it were to cause a general reduction in overconsumption (whatever that is) of high-fat foods -- but a restaurant ban on one ingredient is a pretty inefficient way of getting to that result. And any increase in costs to consumers without corresponding benefits is a waste of money.

In response, some have argued that switching to non-trans fat oils will be no more expensive. This is untrue on its face, since restaurants obviously use the least expensive oil they can get away with while pleasing their customers. That oil, until now, has been the partially hydrogenated type, which gives foods the stability restaurants need, the flavor and "mouthfeel" consumers demand, and the trans fats that activists are scaring us about.

And now there is hard evidence that the switch will cost consumers more. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting that farmers are now being forced to reconsider which type of soybeans to grow. Farmers will have to start growing a special type of soybean -- low-linolenic soybeans -- which provide more stability without partial hydrogenation. How quickly can farmers add 1.5 million acres of this type of soybean? Will they produce the same yield per acre? How will they have to be stored to keep them separate from the other types of soybeans? Will enough seeds be available in time? Each of these decisions represents a risk to farmers -- and if they don't get exactly the right answer to each, their costs, and the costs of the oil, will have to rise. Those costs will quickly be passed to the consumer.

Again, if this cost reduced our risk of getting heart disease, it might be worth it. But since it doesn't, this is just another example of activists increasing the cost but not the quality (or length) of living.