Should Trans Fats Be Banned?
I grew up rarely wandering from the usual stables of day-to-day eating. I'm not exactly what you would call an "adventure eater." However, there was that one time when I ate shark at a seafood restaurant; it felt exhilarating to eat something that could have eaten me. And then there was another time when I ate a Scotch egg - a hard boiled egg wrapped in sausage and then deep fried (fat, wrapped in fat, fried in fat); I felt a bit defiant eating something that I knew supported risk for heart disease, but it's my body. I can eat what I want, right?
It's in this spirit and as a doctor that I approach the Food and Drug Administration's move to ban trans fats this past week with mixed feelings.
What Makes Trans Fat Different?
What makes a trans fat different from any other sort? The answer requires a brief primer on organic chemistry (I'll be quick).
Basically, fats in their molecular structure consist mostly of carbon and hydrogen atoms strung together. Actually, the carbon atoms are strung together and hydrogen atoms attach to the outside of this frame. When all the available bonds are filled with hydrogen atoms, the fat is "saturated." Likewise, when the carbon chain contains extra bonds that are not taken up by hydrogen atoms, the fat is said to be "unsaturated."
Unsaturated fats are further classified based on whether the alignment is straight or if there is a bend based on how things line up. This bent form is known as "cis" and the straight form is known as "trans." Different foods have different proportions of different fats. Basically, however, trans fats are artificially produced. They are a byproduct of taking fats, primarily vegetable oil, and adding hydrogen atoms so that it liquefies at a desirable temperature (hydrogenation).
The History of Trans Fat
100 Years Ago: Trans fats entered the food scene around 100 years ago as more complex science started to be used. To help with demands for cooking fats that were readily processed and available in the face of butter and lard shortages, Crisco (hydrogenated cottonseed oil) was mass-produced in the U.S. It was a housewife's dream. It tasted great, had a better consistency at room temperature, and was reasonably priced to boot. Cookbooks calling for Crisco were provided for free. No kitchen was without this universal product. For years, Americans were happy with their Crisco cookies and fried chicken. Yet, deep in the unseen reaches of our coronary arteries, bad things were happening. Trans fats were raising the levels of our artery-clogging bad cholesterol (LDL), while lowering the levels of good, protective cholesterol (HDL).
30 Years Ago: In the 1950s, when it was first suggested that trans-fats were harmful, the associations were swept under the rug. By the 1980's, however, the public was about ready to face the facts. In 1994, a statistical analysis was published in the medical journal Circulation that estimated 30,000 cardiac deaths per year were related to trans fat consumption. Besides this, heart disease and stroke, dementia, depression, infertility, cancer, and diabetes have since been linked to trans fat consumption.
10 Years Ago: FDA action in 2003 finally mandated food labeling to include the amount of trans fat in commercially sold food products. Now, we have some information available to help avoid trans fat, but Americans are still consuming an average of 5.8 grams of trans fat per day. Critics say they feel the mandate fell short by allowing food manufacturers to "round down," declaring their product "zero trans fat" even if a serving contained 0.5 grams of trans fat, and consumers were likely to eat several servings. Manipulation of serving sizes and production to get just this level have run rampant since then. As a result, consumption of several servings of these products could still yield an unhealthy amount of trans fat.
Last Week: Last week, the FDA removed the "generally recognized as safe (GRS)" classification on trans fats. The importance of this move is that food production needs prior approval from the FDA to use non-GRS, which will create a lot of red tape and expense for manufacturers wishing to continue using trans fats. In other words, it would be easier to just reformulate their products. (It should be noted that the rare trans fats that occur in small amounts naturally are excluded from this regulation.)
What Will This Mean?
Since the labeling regulation and heightened awareness among Americans nearly a decade ago, most food manufacturers have already voluntarily reduced their trans fat content. As a result, the average daily trans fat consumption reduced to around 1 gram per day in 2012. Some of the last hold-outs, and those most likely to be affected include microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, certain margarine products, and coffee creamer. These products will likely move toward kicking trans fats with the new regulations and that may affect the cost.
Then, of course, there's Crisco. In 2007, Crisco reformulated to remove trans fats to less than 0.5 grams per serving, but if the FDA continues to roll with momentum, the next step in regulation would be to make "zero trans fat" equal just that.
The FDA ruling this past week comes in a testy era of suspicion regarding government control over our autonomy as individuals. The fundamental dance here exists between the American ideal of autonomy and the disallowed consumption/sale of a product with no health value that causes death. In fact, the FDA is not actually banning use of trans fats. Rather, it is taking away its classification of safe for consumption which follows factual findings. This, in my opinion, takes the socialist "burden to society" view out of the picture.
Trans fats will still be available, just harder to get. Risk and consumption will not be ultimately regulated or disallowed, in the same way that adults are able to use alcohol and tobacco. Like these products, I wonder if the government will consider trans fats the next fertile ground to apply massive "sin taxes." Regardless, the new market forces will likely improve the health of Americans. And it is in the best interest of Americans in general to make healthy choices with not only trans fats, but also calorie consumption, portion size, and appropriate balance of carbs, proteins, and fats.