DALLAS, November 14, 2013 – More than 100 years after their development and 57 years after they were first linked to health problems, trans fats are moving toward banned status by the Food and Drug Administration. Last week the FDA announced it was opening a 60 day comment period on proposed regulations that would relabel partially hydrogenated oils as not “generally recognized as safe,” leading to their eventual removal from the food supply.
For most of their history, trans fats had been considered a good alternative to dietary fat from both animals and other sources such as tropical oils. According to the American Heart Association, the hydrogenation process was developed in the 1890s by the French chemist Paul Sabatier. German Chemist Wilhelm Normann then discovered how to make liquid oils into solids, thus developing trans fats. In 1911, Americans first experienced the first man-made fat with the introduction of Crisco shortening.
As more food production was moved from homes and small businesses to factories and with rationing and shortages during World War II, margarine and shortening began to replace butter and lard. The big switch to trans fats, however, came in the 1980s with a public advocacy campaign by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In a 2012 article in Technology and Culture, the journal of the Society for the History of Technology, David Schleifer writes, “In the 1980s, responding to the connection that medical authorities made between saturated fats and heart disease, CPSI and another activist organization, the National Heart Savers Association (NHSA), campaigned vigorously against corporations’ use of saturated fats, endorsing trans fats as a healthy, or healthier, alternative.”
Schleifer notes that not only did the scientific opinion of the time support this view, but that, “growers, oil suppliers, and academic and government scientists had been working since the early twentieth century to commercialize soybeans and develop the partial-hydrogenation process.” For soybeans in particular, partial-hydrogenation was necessary to make them acceptable for the food supply as the process removed unpleasant tastes and odors.
The public campaign not only targeted animals fats, such as the tallow McDonald’s used to fry their potatoes, but also tropical oils like coconut and palm oils. An ad campaign from NHSA called “Who’s Poisoning America,” said, “We implore you. Do not buy products containing coconut oil or palm oil. YOUR LIFE MAY BE AT STAKE.”
Schleifer writes that from 1981 to 1993, CPSI pushed food producers to transfer from saturated fats like lard, tallow, butter, palm, and coconut oils to trans fats. The push was effective and much of the food industry responded by switching to PHOs. However, in 1994, scientific opinion changed again.
At that time, scientific research was beginning to prove what the 1956 study had suggested, that trans fats were more harmful than other fats and contributed to heart disease. Making a 180 degree change in their policy, CPSI began to petition the FDA to require trans fats be labeled on foods. In 2006, this policy was implemented by the FDA.
In 2007 Crisco, the first product with PHOs to be marketed in the United States, removed trans fats from their products. Other companies have made similar moves, and the presence of trans fats has been greatly reduced in the food supply.
In response to last weeks move by the FDA to ban trans fats, CPSI said in a press release, “In 2004 CSPI called on the agency to revoke partially hydrogenated oil’s status as a safe food ingredient altogether.” The organization who first advocated large scale adoption of trans fats has come full circle.
Some experts suggest the initial war on saturated fats was misguided in the first place. Writing in Science Magazine, Gary Taubes notes that despite the reduction of fat in American diets, the incidence of heart disease does not seem to be declining, although deaths from heart disease have dropped, most likely from medical advances. Meanwhile other health problems such as obesity and diabetes have grown.
Taubes notes that while much research has been done on various aspects of fat, cholesterol and heart disease, no causal links had been made between the steps that have been assumed to make a whole. He writes, “Despite decades of research, it is still a debatable proposition whether the consumption of saturated fats above recommended levels (step one in the chain) by anyone who’s not already at high risk of heart disease will increase the likelihood of untimely death (outcome three.)”
Whether the ban on trans fats brings us back to saturated fats or some other innovation is yet to be seen. As nutrition science develops and advocacy groups endorse various theories, these battles will probably continue to play out in the public and political arena.
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