Why Bother Banning Trans Fats When Today’s Kids Can’t Identify a Watermelon?

Weeks into my stressful new job as an attorney, I needed my daily chocolate-glazed munchkin hit with sugar-infused coffee just to turn on my computer. Having been raised in a house ruled by bananas, apples and grapefruit, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I dunked the munchkins deep into my past and returned to the real food I had grown up eating. But don’t let the purple soy smoothie making its way down my digestive tract fool you, I hate the idea of a trans fat ban.

My first problem is the obvious Orwellian one. In the haze of the inevitable trans fat ban debate, you can almost see 1984’s Winston and Julia sitting in a dingy room, shutting the windows lest they be found out by the smell of real coffee sweetened with real sugar. It’s eerie to think that if the NYC government had its way, my brief affair with Dunkin’ Donuts would never have happened. Never mind that I’m an adult who made a conscious choice to eat something unhealthy (trans fat laden or not, I knew that doughnuts clog arteries), and that I had a doctor weigh in on my short-lived junk food obsession. Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t trust me to make decisions about what I eat. Kind of like my mom.

Ban supporters cite rising health care costs borne by society due to heart disease and obesity. But people take plenty of risks that impose costs on society. Certainly there is an abundance of perilous eating behaviors to go around banning — sugar, salt and alcohol, to name a few. And will a steady diet of trans fat-free fries, Big Macs, and Oreos prevent your arteries from getting any more clogged or fat rolls from developing around your belly?

The wannabe ban’s nanny-state implications aren’t the only issues causing me indigestion. People living on trans fats (i.e., restaurant food, processed foods, and McDonalds) likely will be at risk for heart disease and obesity anyway, with or without the ban (Mayor Bloomberg has said that with a ban you can still eat fat-laden McDonalds french fries). Even ubiquitous food guru Marion Nestle acknowledged that the trans fat debate is just the nutrition smoke screen du jour when she wrote, “eliminating trans fats will do nothing to help New Yorkers prevent obesity, which is the greatest food-related threat Americans face.” Instead, all this ban will do is take away our freedom to choose.

Before we start banning things, let’s consider teaching kids a thing or two about food. I don’t think many of them know what food is. One of Kraft’s latest inventions is Lunchables Pizza Swirls with Frosting. Pizza with frosting. Need I say more? Another one of their home runs is Lunchables Deep Dish Pepperoni Pizza with Reese’s Peanut Butter cup — it only has 28 grams of fat. And not to be outdone, Smucker’s came up with Uncrustables — a frozen peanut butter and jelly pocket complete with high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oil in the bread. The so-called pre-packaged “lunches” rake in $750-million per year, so it is no surprise to hear my sister, a fourth-grade teacher at a nice suburban school, report that when she was eating a grapefruit at snack-time one student asked, “Is that a watermelon?”

Maybe life was different when my sister and I were growing up. Unlike the harried parents of today, my parents were home to make dinner. Still, I have a hard time believing that it takes time (or money) to slap peanut butter on bread to make a sandwich, pull an apple out of the fridge, and throw them into a paper bag for a school lunch. I may not be a parent, but I have a long history of being a kid. My parents’ simple efforts years ago are what led me away from munchkins and back to bananas.

Educated consumers (even young ones) will demand better food, making the supply of good food good for business. After viewing the documentary “Super Size Me” at school, students at the Ross School in Easthampton, NY instituted a boycott on unhealthy cafeteria food. Their efforts paid off and led to changes in the cafeteria offerings. Imagine that — educated consumers have the power to change what the market offers!

Indeed, as word got out about the evils of trans fats (and disclosing trans fat became a nutrition label requirement), companies started making changes. Wendy’s has voluntarily started cutting trans fats and Kraft now makes a trans fat-free Oreo. About a year ago, BusinessWeek wrote that Kraft (subsidiary of cigarette giant Altria (MO), formerly known as Phillip Morris) expected to profit from its efforts to give its foods a nutrition makeover. Recently, BusinessWeek reported that alternative food companies selling low-sugar drinks, packaged vegetables and organic baby food are “experiencing exponential growth.” With all the revenue from healthy products, is it any surprise that McDonalds now sells apple slices and puts yoga images on its packaging?

We can navigate through the obesity dilemma, but we’ve got to start by giving the youngest members of society a clue so that they will grow up to make — and demand — better choices. Mayor Bloomberg, go ahead and ban trans fat. But what you’re really saying is, let them eat cake! Let them all eat cake, Lunchables, fries, Big Macs. Whether they contain trans fats or not, that’s all we’re teaching our kids to reach for anyway.