Last week The Center for Disease Control reported than the presence of trans fat has decreased in our blood by 58% between 2000 and 2009. The FDA mandated nutrition labels to include trans fats in packaged foods as of January, 2006.
Food manufacturers were given significant advance notice of the initiative, enough time to reformulate their products. The process of partially hydrogenating vegetables oils was invented by a German Scientist at the turn of the century. Crisco was on the shelf with recipe books in 1911. The FDA determined partially hydrogenated fats were “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS status) in 1958.
CELEBRATING THE PROBLEM
Americans were admonished to switch to margarine in the 1970’s in a misguided effort to reduce risk of heart disease. An appalling lack of science and an overabundance of hubris spurred a revolution in processed foods. I remember reading full page ads in the LA Times, exhorting companies to abandon the saturated fats of the day. Soon “healthier” vegetable oils were replacing palm and coconut oil as well as butter, lard and other saturated fats. What a mess.
Partially hydrogenated fats were found in suspected places and unsuspected places. Ironically the biggest source of trans fat came from bread, crackers and bakery items–about 40% of all trans fat in the food supply. The partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil allowed these products to last longer on the shelf.
SOURCES OF TRANS FATS
Ironically, french fries and other fried foods contributed far less trans fat than bakery items. Unfortunately, the public health bias regarding fast food meant undue attention was placed on that sector.
My husband works in the food industry, when I called Cargill and Archer Daniel Midland and asked them how much liquid shortening was sold with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, the answer was blunt and direct: 99%. Practically every restaurant, cafeteria and food service institution in America was using liquid fry oil with partially hydrogenated fat, regardless of whether you were talking about the local diner, the restaurant of a five star hotel or your community schools and hospital.
THE TROUBLE WITH TRANS FATS
Over time researchers started to question the GRAS status of trans fats. While FDA scientists didn’t start addressing the issue until after 2000, industry scientists were already aware that there was an problem in the early 1990’s.
One veterinarian from Wake Forest University ran a study on monkeys, giving both the experimental and control groups the same number of calories, the same amount of fat and the same amount of activity. The only difference was the type of fat used in their chow. The experimental monkeys were fed 7% of their calories from trans fats. Olive oil made up the rest of the fat and 100% of the fat in the control group.
After 8 years, the control monkeys gained 1.2% of their body weight. The experimental monkeys gained 6.8%. If we try to translate that data into human terms, this would be equivalent to a 130 pound human female gaining 10# of fat just because the she ate food containing manufactured trans fat. And most of it would be in her belly.
LABELING TRANS FATS
Labeling trans fats in foods set up a firestorm. Mostly it has been a good thing. The one unfortunate truth is that the FDA allows manufacturers to state “O” trans fats when in fact a product has less than 0.5 gm of trans fat per serving. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2.5 grams of trans fat per day.
It is quite easy to eat more than “one serving” of anything. How many people eat just one ounce of a muffin? Most commercial muffins, cookies, and other bakery items are eaten in 2, 4, and 6 ounce portions.
It is important to note that not all trans fat is the same. Ruminant animals (cows and the like) also produce naturally occurring trans fats. These trans fats are actually thought to be health promoting. It is the artificially manufactured trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that scientists believe to be the problem.
LESS TRANS FAT TODAY AND OBESITY TRENDS HAVE FLAT LINED
Since 2006, sales of foods adulterated with trans fats have plummeted. The CDC report that we carry less trans fat is our blood underscores the consumer response to labeling trans fats. Just last week Shari Roan of the LA Times reported that obesity rates are leveling off. The usual experts touted how all our public health efforts are starting to work. I’m not so sure.
For the most part, public health efforts are wishful thinking guided by some science and driven by the need to do something. Telling people to eat less fat didn’t work out so well. Telling people to avoid saturated fat didn’t work out so well. Neither has the tired and overused, “eat less, exercise more.”
But I bet reducing trans fat in the food supply maybe one effort that has really paid off. I suspect eating less trans fat has a whole lot to do with obesity rates leveling off. How do you reduce partially hydrogenated (trans) fats in your diet?