Killer Girl Scouts
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
I've been taking my daughter around the block lately, helping her unload Girl Scout cookies on obliging neighbors — and wondering whether we're killing them.
The problem is that most of those Girl Scout cookies have trans fatty acids. Those are the worst kind of fat, killing far more Americans than Al Qaeda manages to.
Trans fats, those nasty partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, clog up your arteries, raising bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol. They are estimated to kill 30,000 Americans annually and maybe more.
One recent study linked trans fats to diabetes and other ailments and suggested that they might cause up to 228,000 heart attacks (including nonfatal ones) each year.
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies suggested in 2002 that "trans fatty acid consumption be as low as possible." A tolerable upper intake level, the report said, is zero.
Maybe it's unfair to pick on the Girl Scouts, because trans fats are all around us, from French fries to some brands of ice cream. And at least the Girl Scouts have taken trans fats out of some of their cookies (though of the eight kinds my daughter's Brownie troop sold, only Lemon Coolers and Tagalongs seemed to have none).
But that's the problem we have in risk assessments. There are certain kinds of risks — say, fears of Saddam Hussein — that galvanize us to mobilize an army and devote $1 trillion to confront the challenge. Meanwhile, we do nothing about threats that are much more likely to kill us — like trans fats peddled by cute little girls.
Actually, it's a pity that Girl Scout cookies are being sold by cherubs. If the sellers were Iranians with turbans and menacing frowns, then the authorities might be more alert to the dangers.
The Food and Drug Administration has required food companies to list trans fats in labels of packaged products, so companies are beginning to remove trans fats from their foods. Kraft, for example, has removed trans fats from all of its Oreos and many other foods.
But Americans now get 38 percent of their calories from restaurant food, and the F.D.A. so far has refused to require restaurants to disclose trans fat content. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed a petition asking the F.D.A. to require restaurants to disclose the presence of trans fats in their foods, as well as another petition that would in effect come close to banning manufactured trans fats altogether.
Both moves make sense. Denmark, for example, has quite successfully adopted a law stipulating that no more than 2 percent of the fats in foods sold there can be industrially produced trans fats.
The result is that if you walk into a McDonald's in Copenhagen and order a large meal of chicken nuggets and French fries, you'll get just 0.33 grams of trans fatty acids. Walk into a McDonald's in the U.S. and order the same meal, and you get 10.1 grams of trans fats.
That was the finding of a study published last month in The New England Journal of Medicine. It found huge variations: an order of fries and chicken at KFC provided almost 25 grams of trans fats in Hungary, but negligible amounts in Denmark, Russia and Wiesbaden, Germany.
To put those numbers in perspective, just five grams of trans fats per day are associated with a 25 percent greater risk of a heart attack.
Prowl a supermarket, and you see that Pop Secret Butter Microwave Popcorn has 5 grams of trans fats per serving, Keebler Chips Deluxe cookies have 1.5 grams of trans fats per cookie, and Drake's Yodels and Ring Dings have 2 grams. At Denny's, carrot cake has 3 grams.
It's difficult for the food industry to claim that trans fats are unavoidable when the Danes manage to avoid them. And there's no justification for letting restaurants inflict them on us without informing us.
Look, there are a lot of risks that we can't do much about. Brain tumors, for example. Or plane crashes. Or foreign leaders who are absolutely determined to produce nuclear weapons. But trans fats kill more Americans than any of those, and they're very easy to protect against — so I hope the Bush administration will follow the Danish model and curb the use of trans fats.
And in the meantime (now that my daughter has finished selling her cookies), here's a step you can take: Set up a neighborhood watch team to be alert for little girls intent on clogging your arteries and killing you with their sweetness.
Photo credit: Nicholas D. Kristof. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)