Trans Fats as a Case Study for the Government Regulation of Food

Many shoppers have wandered by the butter section of the grocery store and picked up a container of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” without ever questioning the contents of their choice. As it turns out, the exact ingredients of this butter substitute have changed since its inception in 1986 from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) to a concoction of various vegetable oils. This may seem like an ancillary detail, but the switch reflects a long battle between health advocates, the scientific community, and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the safety of trans fats.

During this time, the reputation of trans fats ran the gamut from nutritionally exceptional to borderline lethal. After over two decades of conferences, arguments, and fierce lobbying efforts, the FDA finally banned PHOs from the American food system, effective beginning in 2018. Health concerns surrounding fructose, processed foods, and sugar alcohols are particularly salient at the moment, and any future regulation surrounding these compounds will likely see a similar lag in tangible policy responses. However, I argue that this delay is a critical quality control point that helps to maintain accuracy and integrity in the constantly-evolving field of nutrition.

What are trans fats and why are they important?

Fats are made up of long hydrocarbon chains that can be made up of single bonds (saturated) or contain one or more double bonds (unsaturated). Saturated fats — like butter or lard —  are typically solid at room temperature and impart a much more desirable melting point and consistency than their unsaturated counterparts. However, these animal-based products were expensive and out of reach during the early to mid 1900’s.

Thanks to the work of German scientist Wilhelm Normann, industry soon discovered how to convert unsaturated vegetable oils — a much cheaper alternative to animal-based oils — to a saturated fat that could be used as a butter substitute. Trans fats were initially just a mere by-product of this reaction, until their useful properties were discovered and widely implemented.

Trans fats were first marketed in the forms of Crisco and margarine, both of which were heralded for their use in making exceptionally flaky pie crusts. They also dramatically increased the shelf life and the texture of most processed foods, as well as provided an effective medium for frying at restaurants and fast food joints.

Trans fats received another marketing boost between the 1950’s and the 1990’s, when the abolition of saturated fats became the raison d’etre of health advocates. Heart disease became the leading cause of death in the United States, and researchers sought an easy scapegoat to assign blame to. Thus began the anti-dairy and anti-meat crusade — a convenient trend for trans fat producers, as its vegetable oil origins allowed them to market it as “naturally sourced.”

Public pressure from organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was mounting against the use of saturated fats in restaurants and processed foods, so many chains began to switch their frying oils to shortening or partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Unfortunately for these industries, by 1990 the tides were turning against trans fats. A key study from Harvard linked the consumption of these oils with an increased risk of heart attack, and another seminal paper associated them with elevated levels of “bad” cholesterol. By 1994, the CSPI began lobbying the FDA to require trans fat content on all Nutrition Facts Labels.

Bureaucratic idleness prevented any action until 1999, when the FDA delayed its own proposal regarding mandatory trans fat labeling. It wasn’t until 2002, when the National Academies Institute of Medicine released a report arguing that “the only safe intake of trans fat is zero,” that the FDA finally updated its Nutrition Facts Labels requirements. Even so, industry was granted a four year grace period to comply.

During this window, America’s tried-and-true market-based economy allowed consumer awareness of the perils of trans fat to have significant effects on industry. Crisco, which in its original form was virtually pure trans fat,  altered its formula to contain virtually undetectable levels. The margarine industry responded similarly, as did the makers of cinnamon rolls, coffee creamers, microwave popcorn, and a slew of other processed snack foods. There is a loophole — a trans fat content of 0.5 grams or less can be rounded down to zero, so any product with “partially hydrogenated oil” as an ingredient still contains a small amount of this devilish compound.

All of this goes to show that consumer demands seem to have catalyzed government regulation once again — in 2013, the FDA declared that trans fats were no longer “generally recognized as safe.” On June 16, 2015, the FDA released its final determination, giving industry three years to remove all PHOs from its products or petition the FDA for special permission. By the time that the new regulations are fully implemented in 2018, twenty-four years will have passed since the first evidence regarding the perils of trans fat consumption was published.

What does this mean for the future?

The story that I’ve outlined above is a concrete example of the nature of government regulation of food. It showcases how fickle the nutrition science field can be as well as highlights how long of a delay there has been, and will always be, before the FDA is able to effectively research and regulate key food components.

Many point to the trans fats story as a successful case study in the fight to combat the growing obesity rate, which has reached over 33% in the United States. There are calls to monitor ingredients like fructose, added sugars, and processed foods with equally stringent rules, and many believe that a quick policy response is both feasible and necessary. However, drafting regulations based on fleeting or insufficient science is nothing more than dangerous guesswork that will likely waste time, wreak havoc on industry, and confuse consumers.

The two decade lapse between the first damning scientific paper and the FDA’s mandate was necessary in part to ensure that the nutritional reasoning and epidemiological studies held over time. Nutrition science evolves particularly quickly, and the wide range of macro and micronutrients are well known for behaving differently in vitro and in vivo. It is now virtually undisputed that trans fats are incredibly detrimental to human health due to their association with “bad” cholesterol and increased risks of coronary heart disease, but it took over two decades to reach this point. These health claims are hefty and profound, and should not be made without near 100% certainty.

While the recent studies linking sugar (fructose in particular) and excessive consumption of processed foods with obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and the like can certainly be appreciated, many agree that there is simply not enough evidence to confidently demand their banishment at a population level. The one exception to this may be soda and other sweetened beverages, as many cities have already begun to implement a soda tax. Even so, a financial disincentive is a far cry from illegality.

In sum, the abolishment of trans fats from the American food system can and should be viewed as a success story for public health. The model that this process left behind will likely be mimicked for a different food additive or by-product in the future, whether that be fructose, sugar alcohols, preservatives, or a yet-unidentified contender. The long delay between seminal research revelations and tangible legislation should be viewed less through the lens of bureaucratic gridlock and more through that of the FDA’s penchant for scientific vetting — a painful but necessary process to ensure adequate health for all.