I was asked a scholarly question by Dr. Sharon Galper Grossman (doctor of oncology, and holder of a master’s degree in public health, from Harvard University).
“Shalom, Honorable Rabbi. Trans-fat is a vegetable fat that undergoes an industrial chemical process that turns it into a hardened, or partially hardened, fat. It is used in the food industry because it enables a long shelf-life, has a positive effect on taste and is relatively cheap, but it is also very unhealthy. It is found in commercial baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, biscuits, pies, microwave popcorn and frozen pizza, in fried foods such as chips, donuts, and fried chicken, as well as in non-dairy coffee creamer, and margarine.
“Increased consumption of trans-fat increases the risk of coronary heart disease, which is a disease that causes narrowing of the blood vessels due to the accumulation of fatty substances in the walls of the arteries. Heart disease is the main cause of death in the world. It has been proven that a 2 percent increase in the amount of energy provided by trans-fat (about 4 grams per day), causes a 23 percent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease. New York was the first major city in the United States to strictly limit trans-fats in restaurants, and in 2007 restaurants were banned from using most frying and spreading fats containing artificial trans-fats in an amount of more than 0.5 grams per serving.
“In 2003, Denmark became the first country to introduce legislation regulating the reduction of trans-fat content in food products. In practice, trans-fat was reduced, or completely removed, from foods that were initially high in trans-fat, such as chips, microwave popcorn, and various baked goods. As a result, food manufacturers in Denmark developed new production methods for food products, without raising prices.
“Recent data from New York State showed that in areas that removed the use of trans-fat, there was a 6 percent decrease in hospitalizations for heart attacks, or strokes. In Denmark, the policy led to a decrease of 14 deaths out of 100,000 people each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates are that removing trans-fat from people’s diets can prevent 500,000 global deaths every year. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that smoking is 14 times more dangerous, and causes about 8 million global deaths per year, 7 million from direct smoking, and one million from passive smoking.
“Although things have not yet been definitively proven, from what we see – trans-fat harms health even without a life-threatening effect, for example, excessive consumption will make the body resistant to insulin (diabetes), or cause fertility problems, such as low sperm count. Also, the widespread use of trans-fats is particularly harmful to the health of children and teenagers, a harm that is not measured in the mortality rate.
“In 2018, the American Health Organization (FDA) completely banned the use of trans-fat in the food supply of the United States. Although in practice, a little trans-fat still remains, since when the rate of trans-fat is less than half a percent, there is no need to report it. For example, many snacks still have trans-fat, and those who are used to eating a lot of snacks accumulate a large amount of trans-fat.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) asked all the countries of the world to ban the use of trans-fat by 2023, in order to completely remove it from the global food supply. 58 countries have already enacted laws designed to limit the use of trans-fat, and 100 countries have not yet followed suit. According to the organization’s website, since 2018, the State of Israel is satisfied with the requirement for registration on packaged foods.
“According to the accumulated experience from the United States and Denmark, we find that eliminating trans-fat from the diet is not a difficult task. It does not significantly increase the price of food, and on the other hand, reduces socio-economic inequality, since people from lower socio-economic classes tend to eat more trans-fats, and have a higher rate of heart disease.”
The Halakhic Question
“1) is there an issur (halakhic prohibition) for an individual to eat products with trans-fat, or is it because each and every individual has no idea if they will get sick, there is no prohibition regarding them, and “shomer petayim Hashem” (God protects the simple)? 2) Is there an issur to serve these products at parties in synagogues, since at parties, we are already talking about a group of people, and there is a higher probability that one of the participants will get sick as a result of eating trans-fat? 3) Where there is a law that prohibits the use of trans-fat, is it a chova (mandatory) to follow the law?
“I thank you, Rabbi, in advance, for the investment and willingness to devote your time to the question. Dr. Sharon Galper Grossman.”
I went at length in presenting your question, because a good question is half the answer, and your question is three-quarters of an answer. Half of the answer is the important information about the health damage from trans-fat, and another quarter of the answer is pointing out the fact that people are different from each other – some will be harmed more, others less, and some will seemingly not be harmed.
In practice, according to the mitzvah to maintain health, it is advisable to avoid eating trans-fat like other unhealthy foods, but there is no issur, because only food that is liable to cause imminent and tangible danger is prohibited from eating. Similar to this is the prohibition of drinking wine left uncovered, at times when there was fear that it contained snake venom (Mishna Terumot 8:4-7), and today, when snakes are not found in homes, the prohibition is nullified (cf. SA YD 116: 1, and Lavush).
However, foods that were considered somewhat harmful were not prohibited, because alongside the harm in them, there was benefit from the calories they contained. In other words, the general rule “khamira skhanta mi’isura” (danger is more severe than prohibition) – is said regarding imminent and tangible dangers (Chullin 10a; Rema 116:5).
Indeed, our Sages also warned against things in which there was possibly a distant danger, such as their warning that a person should not put a coin in his mouth lest a sick person touched it, and he became infected with his disease, and they also warned not to place a knife in a way that could endanger people (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:3; SA 116: 4-5). However, there is no loss from observing these warnings, which is not the case with imposing a prohibition on foods.
These definitions are given by the health and medical experts, and since they did not define trans-fat as a food that should not be eaten because of its danger, rather, only as a food that is recommended to be avoided, this is also the position of the scholars of halakha. And there is still a great deal of benefit from this being the position of halakha, because if rabbis teach that it is proper to avoid eating unhealthy foods, the precaution of this will also take on the dimension of a mitzvah, and then it will be easier for the rabbis to be careful about it, and this precaution will raise a person to pay attention to the sanctified value of his life.
The Reasons for Caution against Imposing a Complete Halakhic Prohibition
There are two main reasons why our Sages did not impose a prohibition on harmful foods whose danger is not imminent and tangible: one, as you mentioned, people are different from each other. Many of them will not be harmed by eating trans-fat due to their body features. And even for those who may be harmed due to their body features, many of them will not be harmed if they incorporate exercise into their lives, eat less, or maintain a good and calm sleep.
The second reason is that the joy of life is a very fundamental component of health, so much so that some researchers claim that people who report greater satisfaction and happiness, live on average close to ten years longer than people who are not happy. Therefore, there is sometimes reason to fear that avoiding foods that a person likes very much may cause him greater health damage. And even regarding smoking cigarettes, these opinions are taken into account.
Unlike eating trans-fat, smoking cigarettes is prohibited, since as you wrote, it is 14 times more dangerous than eating trans-fat. In addition to this, it has no nutritional benefit, so there is no great harm from its prohibition. Consequently, the halakhic ruling is that smoking is prohibited, and anyone who is addicted to smoking should make a great effort to quit. Nevertheless, when it is very difficult for a person, his smoking is not treated as an absolute prohibition. Even though smoking which causes addiction is absolutely forbidden, if one is already addicted and quitting smoking involves great suffering for him that may lead to depression, it is possible that quitting smoking will be more dangerous for him. That is why one is instructed to make a great effort to give up cigarettes, but not to destroy his spirits for that purpose (see Peninei Halakha: Likutim 2, 9: 11).
Similarly in regards to someone who is extremely overweight – even though his condition may be more dangerous than that of an addicted smoker, it should not be declared that it is a complete prohibition for him to eat as he is used to, since it is possible that stopping his habits will lead to depression, whose danger is liable to be more serious. Rather, he should be sensitively encouraged to fulfill the mitzvah to maintain health.
The Law is Binding
However, when a law is established that limits or prevents the integration of unhealthy substances in the food industry, it is mandatory for everyone to comply, like any law required according to “dina d’malkuta, dina” (the law of the land, is the law). This was the case when the government was dictatorial, all the more so the law is binding in a democratic government, since the law was determined by a wider consensus. Also, since this is a law that strengthens the mitzvah of health care, one who violates the law, also cancels a mitzvah from the Torah.
Therefore, to the extent that the representatives of the medical establishment believe that trans-fat should be completely or partially prohibited in food, it is a mitzvah for them to work towards establishing such a law.
Parties in Synagogues
As long as no law is established that it is forbidden to serve foods with trans-fat and the like, it is not possible to establish that this is forbidden, even at gatherings or public parties.
However, it is appropriate for the gabbi’s to hold a meaningful discussion, and think about how to increase health awareness among the public, and out of awareness of the public, see if there is a reason to encourage not bringing certain foods to Kiddush and parties, and if a large majority of the public agrees, there is a reason to consider establishing regulations that prohibit the bringing of certain foods that are known to be unhealthy. In any case, this must be promoted while avoiding insults.
To that end, they will have to speak in advance, respectfully and calmly, with anyone who has a party, and explain the decision to them, and even formulate ways to help those who have difficulty celebrating Kiddush according to the new regulations.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated