published Saturday, November 9th, 2013

FDA's ruling to eliminate trans fat is overdue

It doesn't take much common sense to know that doughnuts, thick icing and sugary soft drinks — like tobacco — are bad for us.

But face it, there's nothing much better when you're past your eating time and a craving hits.

That's what many food marketers -- including some based in the Chattanooga area -- have banked on for years. They have bet that we we won't be able to control those cravings. In today's hair-on-fire world we can no longer walk out in the backyard and grab an apple off the tree or some grapes off the vine.

So it's good news for most of us -- health-wise and money-wise -- that the FDA announced Thursday it will require the food industry to phase out the use of heart-clogging trans fats.

Food manufacturers already have eliminated about three-quarters of trans fats usage as consumers have become more label conscious and some state and city laws required it.

It is telling that eliminating the remaining 25 percent of trans fats will prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year. The implication is that if we still ate the foods today that contained trans fats a decade ago, we would have had many more heart attacks and deaths. The trans fats also have proven to increase our bad cholesterol and lower our good cholesterol.

Scientists say there are no health benefits to trans fats -- also called partially hydrogenated oils -- because hydrogen is added to natural oils to make them more solid, easy to use and long-lived on grocery shelves and in vending machines. Manufacturers also liked trans fat because they were cheaper than saturated animal fats like butter.

The FDA's ruling is open to public comment for 60 days, but food makers will have to prove that partially hydrogenated oils are safe to eat, a high hurdle with the Institute of Medicine concluding that there is no safe level for consumption of them.

It's an interesting turn-about, since for years trans fats were thought to be healthier. Crisco, originally marketed in the beginning of the 20th century, was the archetype and was marketed as healthier than butter. Now it contains no trans fat.

In 2003, the FDA required that artificial trans fats be listed on food labels. With that development, many large producers began to eliminate them. Cities in New York, California, Ohio and Pennsylvania told restaurants to eliminate them, and McDonald's was one of several chains that found substitutes.

Largely without even realizing it, Americans reduced their daily consumption of trans fats from 4.6 grams in 2006 to about 1 gram in 2012. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that blood levels of trans fatty acids among white adults in the United States declined by 58 percent from 2000 to 2009. No wonder health insurers have been making more profit: The male rate of heart attack mortality was 127.3 in 100,000 in 1999, and it declined to 78.7 in 100,000 in 2006. Women saw similar rate declines -- from 76.4 to 46.7, according to the CDC.

So, this ruling will not mean the end of good food as we know it. It just means we'll be around to eat more of it. And it will likely just make the food better. We'll move back to making cake icing with butter, not plastic margarine. And we'll return to making popcorn the old-fashioned way: on the stove top with butter, not in the microwave grown in its own bag.

As for the sugary drinks? Well, they're still subject to our own conscience.

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