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The trans fat ban-wagon 

I read recently that nearly half of all company-owned Starbucks locations are now serving exclusively trans-fat-free foods. That’s great news if you’re in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or Portland, Ore. — all of which are among the more health-conscious cities in the U.S. and none of which is in Arkansas or any other Southern state consistently ranked as the least healthy in the nation.

Of course I was angry, and I wanted to know what evil corporate conspiracy was responsible for ensuring that I’d gorge myself to an early, artery-clogged death; then I remembered that Starbucks is an establishment that I systematically avoid (I did buy coffee there once, in a professional attempt to understand why customers kept growling at me for making a caramel macchiato “incorrectly”), and therefore the news has no bearing on my existence. Then I remembered that several hundred years ago it was discovered that our solar system is a heliocentric one, so I made a couple of phone calls.

It was a characteristically (for me) false alarm. They plan to have all of their locations converted by the end of the year. The holdup has to do with regional bakeries and recipe conversions and a bunch of boring stuff adding up to the simple fact that we don’t live in one of 10 major metropolitan areas that together make up 50 percent of Starbucks’ market, the elimination of trans fats in which makes for an impressive-sounding press release. And so we’ll wait. It won’t be the first time California has insensitively held the Oscars before we’ve had a chance to see half the nominated films.

Let’s forgo the complex chemistry — there are many different types of fat and they act upon our vital systems in different ways — and simply say that trans fats in particular, found primarily in fried foods and baked goods, are really bleeping bad. This (as far as I know) is undisputed. The more public this knowledge becomes, the greater the demand for trans-fat-free foods: New York City recently banned the use of trans fats in all its restaurants; Los Angeles and Massachusetts are considering bans; and Taco Bell and KFC (the latter after being sued) announced that they’re switching to trans-fat-free cooking oils.

McDonald’s has been promising to reduce trans fats since 2002, but has diverted attention away from its failure to do so by introducing a new line of fried-chicken-topped salads. Who goes to McDonald’s for salad, when they’re so much better at making quarter pounders? It’s junk food, people!

The nutrition information for the regional Starbucks locations is available online. Of the 40 items listed, less than a third contain trans fat to begin with; an apple fritter, for example, contains 0 grams of trans fat. And 500 calories. Aye, there’s the rub. Yes, trans fats are bad for us, and yes, it’s wonderful that businesses and governments are helping to eliminate them from our diets. But the suggestion that intrinsically unhealthy foods will suddenly be “safe” once divested of their trans fats could be almost as dangerous as leaving the trans fats where they are. Remember the “healthy” snack craze of the ’90s? Dieters, lulled into believing that “lo-fat” meant “no nothing,” ate twice as much as usual of anything labeled fat free.

(Speaking of labels, the FDA’s guidelines — the standard for these bans and conversions — allow that an item is considered free of trans fats if it contains less than one gram.)

Some of the language surrounding the bans sounds weirdly similar to that used in lawsuits against tobacco companies. “New Yorkers are consuming a hazardous, artificial substance without their knowledge or consent,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden. He stopped short of saying that we are all a bunch of ignorant, helpless children who, too weak-willed to make healthy choices on our own, need Mommy McDonald’s and Daddy Starbucks to take our fatty foods away from us.

In a surprising attack on our lowly (or, more accurately, inflated) position on the national health scale, state Sen. Tracy Steele (D-North Little Rock) mentioned the idea of a ban to Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson during a recent Senate committee hearing on health, potentially making Arkansas the first Southern state to jump on the trans-fat ban-wagon. Take that, Starbucks.

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