On November 7, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to change its classification of trans-fatty acids and remove the designation “Generally Recognized As Safe.” If enacted, this change would result in a de facto ban of synthetic trans fats. In practice, this means food manufacturers would need to prove to the agency the use of trans fats would not have any adverse health effects before products containing them could enter commerce.
The de facto ban on trans fat’s GRAS status signals a sea change in the agency’s approach to food-safety regulation. Historically, the FDA has banned only additives and products that could be acutely dangerous to public health. FDA attempts to limit other ingredients, such as salt and sugar, have met public backlash, but it’s unlikely many will step up to defend trans fats, considering the scientific evidence that seems to link its long-term consumption with a slightly increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Since almost any food can become dangerous if consumed in excess over an extended period, this move would set a precedent for the FDA to go after other food ingredients. Unsurprisingly, self-styled “public health” advocates — always at the forefront of nanny state regulatory efforts — are elated at this prospect.
In the 1980s, some scientists began to associate heart disease with saturated fats, and in response, groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Heart Savers Association began to hound manufacturers for “poisoning America … by using saturated fats,” and as a result “nearly all targeted firms responded by replacing saturated fats with trans fats,” as David Schleifer wrote in 2012 for the journal Technology and Culture.”
In 1988, the Center for Science in the Public Interest published its report, Saturated Fat Attack, which described trans fats as “more healthful,” something we now know not to be the case. Research has shown that saturated fat is far from being “poison,” and that trans fat isn’t exactly health food. Then, in the mid-1990s, CSPI petitioned the FDA to add trans fat to nutritional labels on food products, which enables consumers to decide for themselves how much trans-fat is too much.
In recent years, more and more consumers have been saying “no thank you” to trans fat, which has prompted companies to voluntarily reduce and virtually eliminate the additive. As Khazan noted, even Crisco, the first shortening product made entirely of vegetable oil, changed its recipe to include less than a half-gram of trans fat per serving.
As with saturated fat in the 1980s and 1990s, the research on trans fatty acids is still developing. According to the updated World Health Organization study of the ingredient, although the growing body of evidence indicates consumption of partially hydrogenated oils — that is, trans fats — increases risk factors for cardiovascular problems, there is no evidence to indicate a correlation between the consumption of naturally occurring trans fats and increased cardiovascular disease risk.
Ultimately, there are hundreds of foods and ingredients that if consumed in large enough quantities for a long enough period of time will result in negative health outcomes. The solution is not to ban them but to let consumers access information and make their own choices. Let nutrition groups petition companies to voluntarily list ingredients and offer healthier options if they like, but keep government out of the decision so consumers can make their own choices.
As the debate over trans fat shows, health advocates, research scientists and our own government often do not know what is best for us; individuals must decide for themselves.