The Fat-That-Must-Not-Be-Named


Craig Klugman

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Health Regulation & Law

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

As you may have heard, the FDA is considering changing its recommendations concerning partially hydrogenated oils, or what are commonly known as trans fats. The FDA proposes labeling these lousy lipids as not “generally recognized as safe” for food. This amounts to trans fats being considered “food additives” that could not be used in food except when authorized by regulation.

Trans fats are made by solidifying oil. The great thing from a food perspective is that these fats are very stable and give a long shelf life to food. Trans fats are found in processed foods such as some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen foods, coffee creamers, margarine, some prepackaged baked goods, some pre-mixed baking and pancake mixes, some fried foods, and in many snack foods. I can just hear my kosher aunt wondering what she’ll do when she offers a meat meal since under dietary rules, you are not supposed to mix dairy and meat. Margarine has been a mainstay of kosher tables for over a century.

Trans fats have been implicated in raising low-density lipoproteins (LDL), also known as “bad cholesterol.” Low LDLs have been associated with heart disease. In its press release, the FDA states a belief this move would prevent “an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from hear disease each year.” The FDA is seeking public comments for the next 60 days.

But without showing a causative effect that the bans save lives, it is harder to justify curtailing gastronomic autonomy—the right to make your own choices as to what to eat. There is some precedence—state governments control the consumption of alcohol to certain age groups and many states ban unpasteurized milk. The U.S. federal government bans ackee (a pear-shaped fruit from Jamaica that can affect blood sugar), sassafras oil (carcinogen), puffer fish (deadly toxin), redfish (endangered species), wild beluga caviar (endangered), and casu marzu (Sardinian cheese made with fly larvae) to name a few. Other dangerous ingredients are permitted such as azodicarbonamide—a chemical compound used in the production of foamed plastic and in the U.S. as a food additive in flour (banned in Europe).

Ironically, this is the 100th anniversary of the first creation of trans fats. In 1813 French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered the fatty acid that became the basis for margarine. Canada banned margarine (a trans fat) from 1886-1948 (except during a butter shortage during World War I), but the basis was more about the dairy lobby and economics than potential risks to human health. New York City passed a trans fat ban in 2006 that took effective in 2008. Food purveyors there were forced to change how they prepare food to avoid the evil lipids. The first studies on this proposal show that the ban has indeed lowered trans and saturated fats. Of course there was an increase in the consumption of other kinds of fats. What is not clear, however, is whether there has also been a decrease in heart disease. After all, that’s the goal—to prevent heart attacks and premature death.

What would banning the “fat that dare not speak its name” mean? Over the last few years, many food manufacturers have voluntary replaced trans fats with other kinds of fats. And NYC’s food industry did not implode. Chefs did not move to other places in pursuit of culinary freedom. As a nation, we have empowered the FDA with proving the food products are safe for human consumption. In this case that agency has looked at research showing a potential danger. But at what cost? When critics complain of a nanny state that wants to protect human beings from their own foibles, is this policy more than we want? Is the evidence strong enough to justify a government ban on a food ingredient by reclassifying it as a non-food item (and the last century is forgotten)? “Give me gastronomy or give me death” may be a new battle cry as gastronomic autonomy comes face-to-face with the current imperative to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible. What do you think? Be sure to let the FDA know.

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