The food industry’s use of trans fats in common processed, fried and baked foods has decreased significantly since medical scientists realized how unhealthy they were, and while Americans’ consumption of them has fallen precipitously in recent years as local governments began banning them and the industry voluntarily phased them out, their continued presence in certain foods is still troubling. But it won’t be for much longer, now that the Food and Drug Administration has formally denounced trans fats as a health hazard and initiated plans to ban them. Better late than never, we suppose.
Trans-fatty acids were developed by chemists in the 1950s as a cheap alternative for butter and vegetable oil that had the added benefit of giving foods longer shelf lives. But it turned out that the partially hydrogenated oils clogged people’s arteries — increasing their bad cholesterol while decreasing their good — and contributed to obesity even more than saturated fat.
Unfortunately, the food industry was hooked on them, and Americans liked the crispier french fries and moister cakes they helped produce. So persuading bakers, food processors and the like to get rid of them took some doing, especially because the federal government wouldn’t cooperate (even though it often got stuck with part of the Medicaid tab when people got sick from eating them). But one by one, local governments started imposing bans, and gradually, the industry started phasing out their use of trans fats. It doesn’t seem to have affected sales or profits.
There are still some restaurants that fry their food in hydrogenated oil and some products that contain unhealthy amounts of hydrogenated oil. Among the more notorious are stick margarine, microwave popcorn, prepared cake mixes and frosting, and frozen desserts. But some brands are worse than others, indicating that change without any sacrifice in quality is possible.
In announcing its intention to seek a complete ban (except for the small amount that occurs naturally in some foods), the FDA indicated it would take its time so as not to “unduly disrupt markets.” That’s OK as long as it doesn’t wait too long. This handwriting has been on the wall for quite some time now, and most players in the business have read it and adapted. After the current two-month comment period, the government should set its timer to no more than six months to wring the last trans fats out of the food chain by the beginning of next summer.