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The end of trans fats could be a really good thing

This news just broke. Essentially, the FDA is taking steps to eliminate trans fats from food supply, claiming they are no longer “generally recognized as safe.” If this all works out, foods with partially-hydrogenated oils (the major dietary source of trans fats in processed food) would be subjected to pre-market FDA approval; a food with an unapproved additive can’t be sold in the U.S. This is all a good thing, since trans fats are highly correlated with an increase in heart disease; they increase so-called ‘bad cholesterol.’ 

It’s man-made; it’s not natural. That might be the problem with a lot of our food chain, honestly. It also can clog arteries. There is literally no positive way to spin the presence of a large amount of trans fats in a human diet. If you’re wondering how best to (a) identify and then (b) phase out trans fats in your current diet, check here and here. The research is literally f’n everywhere.

Why do some companies use trans fats on the regular? Simple: easy to use, inexpensive to produce, and they last a long time. There was a gradual sea change because companies feared losing sales, but in general, trans fats are still used in much food production (food companies don’t have to report unless it’s more than .5 grams; they can round down otherwise).

Is the simple elimination or pre-screening of trans fat ingredients going to make America healthier? Probably not; America becoming healthier is a multi-tiered process that involves input from multiple sectors of society. The trans fat situation itself shouldn’t surprise anyone, though: companies are designed to make money, not to (per se) worry about those they are making money from (if so, the notion of ‘defense’ as an industry would be somewhat more complicated). The obesity epidemic, in other words, shouldn’t be a huge surprise.

So … what do we do? The FDA’s announcement today is certainly a proactive step, seemingly in the right direction. There are broader complications to the world/U.S. food cycle, which I’m way too ill-informed to get into here and now, but … this is a really good read on the topic, if you have time. I also watched Forks over Knives this summer, and it changed a lot of how I think about food and humans’ attitudes towards it (apparently they have a cookbook now, which is pretty cool).

As trans fats have declined since the research on them extended in the 1990s, Americans’ bloodstreams are getting a little hit healthier. A complete phase-out can’t possibly be a bad thing, but the problem is greater than simply that. The next target might need to be high-fructose corn syrup, but the connection to farm subsidies therein is a complicated topic. (Been a major topic of discussion lo these last few years.)

The base issue is, while it’s possible to eat healthy on a budget, that requires both (a) motivation and (b) knowledge, probably in the reverse order, and those two factors in concert aren’t always commonplace in American household kitchens. It’s cheaper, easier, and damnit, it tastes good if you want to eat crappier, fattier food. We’re talking about shifting an entire culture here, and that isn’t easy in the least. But this move by the FDA is a good step, if nothing else.

Ted Bauer

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