Proposal that could avert thousands of deaths called threat to ‘sprinkles’

Posted by
January 8, 2015

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By BILL BONVIE

A number of years ago, a classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch featured comedian Buck Henry in the role of a radio talk show host who keeps upping the ante in his attempts to get listeners to phone in, until he finally exclaims, “killing puppies! We’re going to use your tax money to bus Russian communists to your house to kill your puppy!”

That little spoof was what came back to me upon viewing a segment from “Fox & Friends” on which fill-in host Clayton Morris asserted that the Food and Drug Administration was on the verge of instituting a ban on doughnuts with sprinkles – then introduced a ‘expert” who proceeded to imply that such an action could set the stage for an authoritarian police state.

All of which might be pretty funny, had it not been apparently intended to convince viewers that their freedom of choice is somehow threatened by a stalled proposal to reclassify a food ingredient that kills an estimated 7,000 people annually as no longer “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) and phase it out.

The proposed prohibition that has the folks at Fox spreading the alarm about endangered sprinkles is really on partially hydrogenated oil, or PHO, the primary source of artery-clogging dietary trans fat, And it’s one that, far from being imminent, seems to have been relegated to regulatory limbo since the FDA first came out with it in November of 2013.

The Fox & Friends segment (posted by Fox News with the heading “Seize the sprinkles! FDA may ban miniscule amounts of trans fat”) starts with Morris holding up a tray of doughnuts and declaring that you could “say good-bye to your favorite sprinkled doughnuts like these” because the “amount of trans fat needed to make something as small as a sprinkle on your doughnut may be banned.”

Then after asking whether the FDA doesn’t “have more important things to do than regulate sprinkles,’ he introduces us to a heavy hitter on the subject, Jayson Lusk, a “food and agriculture economist and author of The Food Police. Lusk begins by maintaining that the FDA had already taken action on trans fats by requiring that they be labeled some years back, and that as a result, food companies had cut back on using them (due in part to “consumer pressure”), that “consumption of trans fats has fallen pretty dramatically as a response to those labels” and that “it’s a littleunclear why they’re coming in now and adding this ban.”

Sprinkles today, your freedom tomorrow

Lusk further contended that while the “ban on sprinkles and doughnuts might not seem like that big a deal, the way you want to look at that is that if the government can involve itself in such small minutiae decisions of our daily lives as to whether we want to eat sprinkles or not, that’s really not much respect for the citizens’ choices – and if they’re willing to ban those small decisions, what kind of respect will they give citizens in the larger decisions in our lives about where to work or where to live, or some of the things that really matter to us?”

In other words, give them the right to take away your sprinkles, and the next thing you know they’ll be using your tax money to force you to give up your job and your house as well (and maybe even kill your puppy).

But before we make that cosmic (and comic) leap, let’s back up a moment to those sprinkles, which as it turns out, aren’t about to be taken away from anybody (nor are any other products) and need not contain trans fats in the form of PHOs, as some don’t.  If anything, the fact that certain food makers have already switched to trans fat-free products shows that the only “decisions” that would be affected by a ban on PHOs, were it to be enacted, are decisions being made by the food industry to add things that lengthen the shelf life of products while shortening the lives of people who consume them.

But what Lusk also failed to mention before wandering off into the realm of the ridiculous was (1) the labeling of trans fat allows any amount .5 grams or under to be labeled zero, which can allow someone to consume significant amounts of this risky additive without being aware of it, and (2) a study conducted last year found PHOs in a tenth of all processed foods still on the market.

And the trans fats those foods contain are not only a cause of fatal heart attacks, but impaired memory as well. That’s what researchers from the University of California at San Diego determined last fall based on testing involving 1,000 young and middle-aged men.

That’s why consumers should be demanding that the FDA proceed with the action to remove PHOs from the food supply that it actually appears to have deferred in the face of industry opposition. And no, there’s nothing more important it could do, given that what’s really at stake are many of thousands of lives – not hypothetical sprinkles on glazed doughnuts.

Bill Bonvie is the author of the essay collection Repeat Offenders, available at Amazon.com