In a day-late-dollar-short sort of revelation, the FDA announced this week that trans fats ‘are not generally recognized as safe for use in food.’ That’s nice and everything — thanks guys, better late than never! — but let’s talk about why retroactive regulation fails any meaningful food safety goals, and (while we’re at it) why removing trans fats won’t solve the problems that processed food continues to bring to the table.
What’s a Trans Fat, Anyway?
If you’ve been eating real actual food, prepared in the kitchen of a human residence, you may not know about trans fats. First of all, congratulations! You’ve dodged a bullet there. Good work!
But just to catch you up, trans fats were invented by the processed food industry to alter texture and extend shelf life of packaged foods. They’re made by adding hydrogen atoms to oil, often soybean oil; depending on how these hydrogen atoms are added, manufacturers can make a liquid oil however solid they’d like it to be — results of this process demolish human health, but make foodlike products that are more shelf-stable than those made with the original nonhydrogenated oil (which is obviously a totally worthwhile trade).
These partially hydrogenated fats hit the grocery shelves as processed food began it’s dizzying rise to power within our food culture, about a century ago. Originally found all over the place in things like fried goods, baked treats, and margarine, they’ve taken a hit over the last decade as evidence against them steadily piled up — as it turns out, human arteries plus artificially solidified fat equals badness!
In 2003 — a decade ago — evidence of negative health implications moved the FDA to require labels on foods containing these trans fats. As food eaters heard more about the dangers of partially hydrogenated oils, and informed consumerism did its thing, food companies were pressed to omit these dangerous fats from their products. Cities from New York to California took action to encourage (or require) restaurants to avoid using trans fats; major junk-food purveyors can spot a consumer trend just like anyone else, so food megacorps like McDonald’s moved away from using these extra-dangerous fats in their ‘recipes.’
Results were unsurprising, but grand in scope:
Those actions led to a stunning reduction in consumption: Americans ate about one gram a day last year, down from 4.6 grams in 2006. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that blood levels of trans fatty acids among white adults in the United States declined by 58 percent from 2000 to 2009. — Forbes
Those measurably improved health outcomes were just because the FDA (eventually, after a century or so of unmitigated nonregulation of these substances) decided to require labeling of trans fats — and not even ALL food products containing trans fats! Under 2007 FDA labeling guidelines, food companies only had to put trans fats on the label for foods containing more than half a gram per recommended serving size.
Trans fats continue to lurk (often unlabeled, due to requirements above) in products like microwave popcorn, frozen pies or pizzas, and mass-produced baked goods.
So okay: now we’re looking forward to a probable ban on food industry use of trans fats. According to recent NPR coverage, ‘The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an FDA ban on trans fats could prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.’ This week the FDA gave the food industry two months to prove trans fats are safe, and if they can’t (and the smart money’s on ‘they can’t!’) then the substances under discussion will be banned.
Fabulous, FDA, good call!
But I have a suggestion. Do you think it might work better to regulate demonstrably dangerous substances BEFORE they become ubiquitous in our food supply?! Please and thank you? If I’m getting car-jacked, I don’t need a police car to cruise by next week — much less a decade from now. It’s just not as helpful as it might otherwise be!
Maybe if you FDA folk could actually proactively PREVENT the food industry from doing stuff that kills us in the first place, you know, well: it’d be better.
Processed Food: Still No Thank You!
Here’s the other thing: processed food is still a disaster. I know that’s not really ‘top news‘ or anything, but let’s not get distracted here: ‘Trans Fat Free!’ processed sugar, salt, fat, and synthetic edible foodlike chemistry is still not ‘food.’
If we just buy food and cook it, it doesn’t matter whether the FDA bans additives like trans fats in processed foods or not — and our health will be light-years better for it. Processed foods that don’t biodegrade deserve no place on our plates, with or without the trans fats.
In Short, Meh
The food industry is expected to fight the trans fat ban, which should annoy me I guess. I suppose I should be also glad that the FDA is actually trying to regulate something — it’s so rare for that agency to stand up to the food industry in any way, I feel like it SHOULD feel like a big deal! But for me it just highlights the lack of oversight ongoing lo these many years, and still ongoing in other areas where FDA focus is urgently needed.
Maybe this heralds a brave new world of food industry accountability. Maybe this new-and-improved FDA will grace BPA and agricultural antibiotics with some kind of rudimentary attention and (dare we hope?!) regulation, with an eye towards limiting food industry greed in favor of the public good.
I’m glad to see trans fats having a well-deserved hard time; but based on the mind-boggling level of FDA fail in curbing the food industry’s bad behavior so far, I won’t hold my breath.