Editorial: Cleansing the American diet of trans fats

Laste modified: Monday, November 25, 2013
Sara Lee cheesecakes, Betty Crocker cake mix, Pop Secret popcorn. Stock up now if you like these products because they are about to change, thanks to new Food and Drug Administration measures proposed last week. But be warned: This is a recipe for bad health.

The FDA wants to eliminate artery-clogging, artificial trans fats from the nation’s food supply. These artificial fats are a major contributor to heart disease in the United States. Public health advocates have been urging such a ban for nearly three decades. The proposed ruling is open to public comment through Jan. 7.

We applaud this bold move by the FDA. Better late than never.

Denmark was the first country to virtually eliminate trans fats from foods in 2003. Austria, Iceland and Switzerland followed soon after.

Like the brand names mentioned above, partially hydrogenated oils (the bulk of trans fats) are also listed in a wide variety of popular foodstuffs: frostings, microwave popcorn, packaged pies, frozen pizzas, margarines, coffee creamers.

The FDA makes a strong case for a ban: Such action could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year in the U.S. Trans fats deliver a double blow to one’s health. They raise levels of so-called bad cholesterol and can lower the levels of good cholesterol.

While banning these trans fats is a welcome move, it doesn’t protect Americans from making bad dietary choices. Saturated fats that occur naturally in foods are still an enormous problem in the American diet. And naturally occurring trans fats appear in a variety of meats.

The proposed ban is the culmination of years of assault on trans fats. In 2003, the F.D.A. required that artificial trans fats be listed on food labels. This spurred many large food producers to eliminate them. New York City, California, Cleveland and Philadelphia all banned artificial trans fats in cooking. Major food chains, like McDonald’s, found substitutes and eliminated trans fats.

The result has been a gratifying reduction in the consumption of these fats. Americans ate about one gram a day last year, down from 4.6 grams in 2006. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the blood levels of trans fatty acids among white adults in the United States declined by 58 percent from 2000 to 2009.

Where do trans fats come from? Grazing animals produce small amounts of it naturally and small amounts are in milk products and meat. Artificial trans fats come from vegetable oil that has been processed with hydrogen to make it more solid. Food makers use these partially hydrogenated oils to change the texture of their products and make them last longer on shelves and in pantries.

These partially hydrogenated oils are cheaper than saturated animal fats like butter, and at one point were thought to be healthier. Crisco was originally made with trans fats, although it now contains none at all.

The proposed ban will help make our country’s citizens healthier, but it is still up to individuals to make wise food choices and to engage in regular exercise. At least if they want to grow old in good health.