by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
The FDA finally got around to doing something about trans fats. It’s been well known for a very long time that trans fats aren’t very good for you, but they have continued to be used nonetheless all with the blessing of our government.
In large part I think this is due to the fact that things that kill you right away are obviously poisons and the FDA will respond to those very quickly. But things that kill you over a period of time have generally gotten a free pass.
It’s not hard to fathom the main reason for this. If you drink a glass of hemlock and keel over, it’s pretty easy to figure out that maybe we shouldn’t allow hemlock in our food supply. But if you eat something with trans fat in it, you’re not going to keel over right away. In fact, most people won’t keel over at all (at least not from trans fat), though many will. So it’s harder to figure out that trans fats are, in essence, a slow-acting poison.
Rather than having the clear evidence of someone keeling over, you have the accumulation over time of scientific studies. Those studies are often in disagreement with each other, until finally a consensus develops.
In the case of trans fats, that consensus developed a long while ago. And yet trans fats continued to be legal. Why?
I think a large part of it is that in a political world, it’s hard when there are established and powerful vested interests that are opposed to the banning of something that is very useful to them. When it comes to shelf-life, trans fats are great. Maybe not so great when it comes to keeling over, but that’s someone else’s problem.
And if tobacco, which is a much more clearly a poison, can’t get itself outlawed, why should we expect things to be much better with trans fats which, as bad as they may be, kill in the ten of thousands rather than the millions?
This same process can take place in reverse. Case in point, alcohol. It’s very easy to see the downsides of alcohol. Someone drinks one (or more than one) too many, gets behind the wheel of a car, and kills someone. Pretty obvious. Or a chronic alcoholic destroys his liver. Only slightly less obvious, but still pretty obvious.
By contrast, the benefits of alcohol consumption in general, and wine consumption in particular, are of the less obvious sort. Like trans fats in reverse, you can only detect those benefits obliquely. A bunch of people drink a moderate amount of wine and generally, over decades, seem to somewhat better than a equal number of people who don’t imbibe.
The drunk driver tends to dominate the discussion. So wine, a product that really is, on balance, probably beneficial (or at worst neutral) gets lumped in with all sorts of products (e.g., tobacco) that are really, really bad for you.
But when you look at risk, you constantly find that low risks that are dramatic (Sandy Hook, Boston bombing) get more attention and response than high risks that are not. Think of the millions languishing away in hospitals from diseases that we devote relatively little resources to as compared to terrorists, who actually can do much less harm, but do it very dramatically.
At any rate, I’m happy the FDA has finally done something about trans fats. For very personal, admittedly self-centered, reasons, I would be happier still if they would lay off of the wine business, which really, on balance, does no harm, and probably a lot of benefit.