July 15, 2017

Photo illustration by Marcus Varner
Leigh Pujado contemplates Crisco, one of the original mass-market trans fat products. 

Photo illustration by Marcus Varner Leigh Pujado contemplates Crisco, one of the original mass-market trans fat products. 

Trans fats, also known as trans-unsaturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids, have been available in America for more than 100 years. The original company selling trans fats in the United States was Procter & Gamble with Crisco Shortening. Crisco was a miracle product because it lasted much longer than traditional butter or lard and cost less. It also helped make breads and pastries come out lighter and fluffier. 

The original marketing push was price. As consumers became more comfortable with it, companies started to promote its supposed health benefits. When fats from animals became a bigger concern, especially in the 1980s, food companies were urged to start using vegetable oils. By the end of the decade, many switched and trans fats were everywhere, from the creamer people put in their coffee, the margarine everyone spread on their toast to the biscuits found in the grocery store freezer.

What many trans fat sellers failed to mention, was that studies as far back as 1956 were raising concerns. Researchers found that people who consumed even small amounts of trans fats were at increased risk of coronary artery disease. Most of that was ignored, until a 1995 study came out in the American Journal of Public Health. The title was “Trans fatty acids: are the effects only marginal?” The paper estimated that, “…more than 30,000 deaths per year may be due to consumption of partially hydrogenated vegetable fat.”

Trans fats hurt people in multiple ways. They raised the levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol while lowering the “good” HDL cholesterol. Over time, trans fats damage arteries by making them more susceptible to harmful plaque buildup.

More studies followed and the evidence continued to pile up about how dangerous this product was. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took an amazing step. It said that trans fats were no longer considered “safe” and that food manufacturers had three years to remove it from their products.

Here’s what the FDA said: “Based on a thorough review of the scientific evidence, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today finalized its determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food. This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and to prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks each year.”

Food companies immediately attacked the ruling as an “overreach” by the “nanny state.” Editorials were published from industry representatives claiming the government was taking away free choice. But a funny thing happened when researchers started looking into what effect a ban might mean nationwide.

As early as 2007, several cities, counties and states had begun implementing trans fat bans. So researchers looked into the health of residents in counties with trans fat restrictions versus ones without restrictions, stretching from 2002 to 2013. With several bans in New York State, the researchers used the New York State Department of Health’s Statewide Planning and Research Cooperative System and census population estimates.

Residents who were hospitalized for heart attacks or strokes were counted. Within three years of a ban taking place, there was a 6.2 percent greater “decline in hospital admissions for myocardial infarction and strokes…” All that was after researchers adjusted for age, sex, and commuting between restriction and nonrestriction counties.

Using those numbers, it’s easy to calculate a nationwide ban could prevent more than 8,400 deaths from stroke and 36,600 deaths from heart attack each year.

Until trans fats are banned everywhere, protect yourself. Trans fats are most often found in crackers, fried foods, cakes, muffins and pastries. You probably shouldn’t be eating a lot of those foods anyway. But if you do, look on the label. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated oil” or “shortening,” put it back on the shelf and choose another brand.

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