Zorba Paster: Say Goodbye To Trans Fats

FDA: Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils Will Not Be Generally Recognized As Safe In 3 Years

Peter Hinsdale (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Thank goodness we have trans fats. What a wonderful invention they are. We can take vegetable oil and, through a simple manufacturing process, make it solid. Instead of all that messy oil, we can have a nice white gel to fry our potatoes, make our pies and bake our cakes.

And, gosh and golly, when we buy industry-made muffins and cookies, they’ll last forever. Just think of it — buy it now and use it next year. It never goes rancid. I bet it would last through the next millennium if we put it into a time capsule.

And we all know trans fats are good for us — much better than butter. That dairy product is likely to clog arteries and kill us, so bring on the Crisco, I say. What a great new world we live in.

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Now, I know that was a bit of an overstatement. I take that back: That was a lot of an overstatement. But that was the thinking when trans fats were first introduced in the early 1900s. We thought they were the cat’s meow.

When you harken back to that time, the predominant method of cooking used lard and beef fat. Butter was the expensive stuff saved for your toast or for a special treat. People, my mom was one of those who bought in on trans fats. She even fried eggs in the stuff.

Trans fats don’t deteriorate at room air temperature, ergo their long shelf life. They really took off when butter was rationed during World War II. When I was a kid, butter became known as the “high-priced spread.”

In the 1950s, industrial food companies made oleo (the original name for margarine) and flavored and colored it so it looked like butter and tasted rather similar — at least to the non-Wisconsinite palate, that is.

When I first came to Wisconsin to go to UW-Madison, there were lots of stores on the Illinois-Wisconsin border selling “colored oleo” because Wisconsin had laws against coloring margarine. You had to buy it as a grey-white glob with a packet of yellow food coloring and squeeze this yellow dye into the glob to make it look like something you’d maybe like to spread on your bread.

You can imagine how happy the margarine industry was when that law went away (and how unhappy the dairy farmers were).

But there was something else trans fat products like margarine had that butter did not — the stamp of approval by the medical establishment, me included. I was on the same bandwagon for years when I proudly said on my radio show that my recipes were “made with margarine and not butter.” Boy, was I wrong.

In the middle of the cardiovascular epidemic of the 1960s and ’70s, we campaigned to get saturated fats out of foods, assuming that unsaturated fats, such as trans fats, were OK. We doctors were the steam engine for this change. But unfortunately, we didn’t do the due diligence.

The research showing that trans fats are bad for us was a long time coming. And the Food and Drug Administration took a long time acting on it for reasons that are hard for me to fathom.

Now the FDA, which has finally stepped in, has given its ruling: Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, a major source of trans fats, will not be generally recognized as safe in three years. The FDA will not allow their use in food products without prior approval.

The term “generally recognized as safe” is an official FDA term that means the FDA gives its stamp of approval to a food product. The FDA is taking away that stamp from trans fats products. (By the way, this was something Denmark did way back in 2002; smart folks, those Danes.)

The issue I have with this is, why wait three years? Why not just ban trans fats in 2016, or even earlier? Why wait until 2018? Is there something here I’m missing? Hmm …

My spin: Ladies and gentlemen, we are now witnessing the end of life for trans fats. I say goodbye and good riddance. Maybe high fructose corn syrup drinks will soon follow. Stay tuned. And stay well.

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