Banning Goop: A Brief History of Trans Fats

By Tom Farley

It’s about time. The FDA is finally banning artificial trans fats. You probably haven’t spent a lot of time lately worrying about them; people today seem more fascinated with gluten and GMOs.  But trans fats are far more important to our health.

It all started in 1901, when a German chemist combined vegetable oil with hydrogen gas at temperatures approaching 1000 degrees. The oil turned into a semi-solid goop. Chemically, the chains of carbon atoms twisted – that is, changed from “cis” to “trans”. A few years later Procter and Gamble used this “partial hydrogenation” process to turn cottonseed oil into a white sludge that they called “shortening” under the brand name Crisco. Later, a little artificial color and flavor created “oleomargarine”. Unlike butter, the trans fats didn’t turn rancid at room temperature or burn easily during cooking, which made them popular in frying and baking. By the 1980s, you could find artificial trans fats not just in margarine and frying oils but also in cookies, crackers, pastries, pie crusts, pizza crusts, candy bars, mayonnaise and peanut butter. 

In the 1980s experts began to raise alarms about health damage from all those trans fats. Researchers found that eating trans fats raised “bad” cholesterol (LDL), lowered “good” cholesterol (HDL), and raised the risk of heart disease – raised it so much that by one estimate, trans fats were responsible for 30,000 deaths from heart disease each year. In 1994, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to require food manufacturers to put information on trans fats on food labels. To give you an idea how slowly the FDA moves, the agency proposed the trans fat labeling five years later, and finalized the rule in 2003, with the rule going into effect in 2006.

But that labeling didn’t stop companies from putting trans fats in food. So in 2006, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, the New York City Board of Health prohibited restaurants from using artificial trans fats. Local restaurant bans spread from there to dozens of other cities and states. After the publicity, many national restaurant chains stopped using them voluntarily. And then many packaged food manufacturers reduced the amount of trans fats they used. It wasn’t until 2013 that the FDA published a preliminary determination that trans fats should no longer be considered “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Without the GRAS classification, food manufacturers can’t put partially hydrogenated oils in food unless they get permission from the FDA to use them as an “additive”. The final rule gives the food industry three years to rid their food of the chemicals.

In New York City, restaurants initially howled at the trans fat ban, claiming that they couldn’t cook French fries, pies, doughnuts, cakes and cookies the same way without partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil, and that New Yorkers would drive to New Jersey to enjoy good-tasting fries. But after the ban, the restaurants changed to trans fat-free oils quite easily, and the fries and pastries are just as tasty as ever.

Today, Americans are increasingly interested in avoiding artificial additives and eating food that is “natural” – something close to what we evolved eating. Although it can sometimes be hard to define “natural” food, on the whole this trend is a very good thing for health. The FDA ban on artificial trans fats helps. The toxic chemicals never should have gotten into our food in the first place.