A History of Trans Fats
Updated: Mar 21, 2020
Fats in general tend to get a bad name from those outside of the nutrition industry. The macronutrient is usually associated with the state of being fat, which leads to many avoiding fats all together. There are different types of fat billed as healthy or inflammatory. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, usually found in nuts or avocado, are the fats to choose that help to increase the high density lipoproteins (LDL) which create a healthier cholesterol profile. Not only do they slow down the emptying time in your stomach (making you feel full longer), these fats do a very good job of absorbing the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from your foods!
What we're going to discuss to today are partially hydrogenated oils otherwise known as trans fats. These artificial/industrial fats were used in 1901 to stabilize vegetable oils, increasing the shelf life of these products. With the onset of The Great Depression and World War II, trans fats quickly became the most consumed fat in the nation (hello Crisco!). Up until 1957, there was not a single clinical study on trans fats, but that didn't stop the partially hydrogenated fat industry from touting the health and safety of their product. Fred Kummerow, a German-born American biochemist, was a trailblazer and truly instrumental in lifting the lid on the dangers of consuming trans fats.
After Kummerow acquired autopsy samples from individuals who had died of heart disease, he noticed that the trans fat had lined the tissue of human hearts. Having published his findings in a reputable academic journal, his research was met with consternation, contempt, and doubt. In fact, the Trans fat industry convinced the American Heart Association and NIH that trans fats were healthy, and animal fats should be avoided. And so began his 56 year uphill battle to expose the deadliness of trans fats.
Kummerow had noticed that the rate of heart disease had been going up every decade and continued his experimentation...this time on pigs. He fed these animals artificial trans fats and the results were astonishing. The pigs' arteries were clogged with deadly levels of plague, a true hallmark of heart disease. Once again, after presenting these findings to the FTC and FDA, his findings did not reach the American public. Not only did the FDA surmise that there was no definitive evidence of the danger of trans fats, but Kummerow also lost his funding from the NIH. Even so, he shouldered on.
By the 1990s, there was a bit more information about this deadly fat. In an attempt to sway the American public, the partially hydrogenated fat industry spent 1 million dollars....and gleaned embarrassing results. The study proved that trans fat increased the risk of heart disease MORE than saturated fat. With all of this information out for public consumption, it still took the FDA years to make a move. In 2006, manufacturers were required to label the content of trans fat on their foods and this was ONLY if the content was more than .5g per serving. Even though this was a step in the right direction, many people still don't read nutritional labels correctly. The FDA had considered adding a statement to these labels, warning the public on the consumption of trans fats. However, this idea was also met with scrutiny and later retracted.
In 2009, Kummerow submitted a 3000 word petition to the FDA demanding the ban of trans fats. With no response, Kummerow eventually sued the FDA for dragging their feet about this matter. Subsequently, the FDA issued a statement (finally) announcing a ban on trans fat. After this occurred, companies were given a 5 year grace period to fully remove this fat from their foods.
While this ended well, one could consider how SLOW this entire process was...when there was all this evidence clearly pointing to an indisputable conclusion. Did you know that experts claim trans fats are responsible for over 100,000 deaths per year? With this delay in removing trans fats, one might consider how many more lives we could have saved in the last two decades.