According to news from the FDA, it looks like Trans Fats are finally going to get the boot! Famous poet, author and novelist Victor Hugo once said, ” There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Trans Fats are an idea whose time has passed!
In the early 1900’s food spoilage was a very big issue as electrical refrigeration was still a concept of the future. In 1903 a patent was awarded to a German scientist named Wilhelm Normann for discovering how to harden fats, and in 1912 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Paul Sabetier for his discovery of the specific hydrogenation process we use today. Together, these discoveries clearly addressed the food spoilage needs of the day. These “hydrogenated oils” didn’t spoil like animal fats did because the bacteria that would normally turn fat rancid couldn’t digest it. The problem was neither could humans, which should have been a huge red flag, but of course they did not know that then. To put all of this into historical perspective, Henry Ford was yet to roll out the first assembly line of Fords, Europe was on the brink of WWI, and though electricity was invented in the 1880’s, it was not yet in the majority of people’s homes.
Trans fats were first marketed in the USA as Crisco in 1911 as an economical alternative to butter and animal fats. Their use got an incredible economic boost during WWII’s food rationing program when butter was severely limited. But by the late 1950’s the use of hydrogenated fats became of an issue of not just economics, but of good health when the FDA decided that animal fat was THE cause of heart disease. That proclamation created an explosion of the use of trans fats in margarine instead of butter and in baked goods and frying instead of lard, and Trans Fats first became an integral part of our food manufacturing and processing. They remained so as fried foods apparently taste better and get crisper fried in hydrogenated oils and the shelf life of foods made with Trans Fats is geometrically longer than foods without…but at what cost?
We’ve learned the cost, as since then much has been revealed about the profound negative health consequences of Trans Fats. The direct and dangerous connection between heart disease and Trans Fats was first discovered in the 1990’s and has been very well documented since, but it doesn’t stop there. Trans Fats have been found to decrease fertility, contribute to obesity, cause liver disease, negatively affect memory and our reaction to various brain chemicals, and perhaps most disturbing of all, alter mothers’ genes epigenetically. That means that when a mother ingests trans fats, her genes are altered in a way that is passed down to her children, specifically in a way that affects their cognitive function!
The upshot? The process of getting Trans Fats out of our food supply has been just that, a process. The WHO has called for the complete ban of hydrogenated oils and many countries have put severe limits with fines on their use. In 2006 the FDA required food labeling to list Trans Fat content of over .05 grams. In 2007, NYC took the lead and banned the use of Trans Fats over .05 grams in their restaurants, and with limits on Trans Fats in things like school lunches and labeling, the American consumption of Trans Fats has dropped from 4.6 grams a day in 2003, to approximately 1 gram a day in 2012. However, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg put out a statement this week that the current intake remains a significant concern, that the FDA can no longer recognize partially hydrogenated oils, which are a source of Trans Fats as safe, and if their decision is finalized, any use of partially hydrogenated oils would require specific approval. Victor Hugo would finally be proud!