This is the first in a mutli-post series on the FDA’s trans fat decision by Bill Heisel, a former investigative reporter at the LA Times and a longtime contributor to HealthNewsReview.org.
News reports on the decision by the FDA to phase out artificially made trans fatty acids in food products represent what I would consider a high-water mark in consumer health coverage.
While so often stories about dietary science are a mish-mash of he said/she said providing equal weight to opinions lacking equal scientific validity, the stories about the FDA ban for the most part put the proper emphasis on the long road to reach this decision and the consensus around the fact that trans fats are, as the FDA has now officially declared in its bureaucratic parlance, not Generally Recognized As Safe. There were few astro turf consumer groups complaining about assaults on their doughnuts. No naysayers shouting about the nanny state.
And yet that does not mean the doubters aren’t out there. As HealthNewsReview.org has so often pointed out, people feel whipsawed by conflicting stories over the span of a few years or even months. They don’t know what or who to trust. And that’s why it’s critically important to present some of the science behind a major decision like a trans fat limit.
Why dig into the science if the FDA is already moving on the ban?
First, because the depth of evidence often goes back much farther than the typical reader may know. Read this story by Brady Dennis in the Washington Post about one of the first scientists to research trans fats, Fred Kummerow. As Dennis noted, Kummerow first published a paper about trans fats showing up in high quantities in human tissues in 1957. Dennis wrote:
In the 1950s, as a young university researcher, Kummerow convinced a local hospital to let him examine the arteries of people who had died from heart disease. He made a jarring discovery. The tissue contained high levels of artificial trans fat, a substance that had been discovered decades earlier but had become ubiquitous in processed foods throughout the country. Later, he conducted a study showing that rats developed atherosclerosis after being fed artificial trans fats. When he removed the substance from their diets, the atherosclerosis disappeared from their arteries.
Second, because sometimes the FDA and other agencies are very late to the party. As I have noted in my Antidote blog at ReportingOnHealth.org, Denmark and Argentina are among a host of countries around the world that have acted more aggressively to rid food products of trans fats, often starting with requiring that trans fats be noted on food labels and then setting a limit for trans fat content.
And third, because diet science is often a moving target. One of the most insightful pieces in this regard was a 2013 NPR story by Dan Charles. Like Dennis, Charles picked up on the fact that trans fats were actually thought to be the healthier option well into the 1980s. Charles tracked down David Schleifer, a sociologist at the New York-based group Public Agenda. He has written extensively about the history of trans fats in the food supply and attempts to regulate trans fats. Schleifer provided a counterintuitive take on trans fats, including a must-read for people tuned into the trans fat discussion, A Perfect Solution: How Trans Fats Became the Healthy Replacement for Saturated Fats. Schleifer wrote:
In the 1980s, responding to the connection that medical authorities made between saturated fats and heart disease, CSPI and another activist organization, the National Heart Savers Association (NHSA), campaigned vigorously against corporations’ use of saturated fats, endorsing trans fats as a healthy, or healthier, alternative. Many contemporaneous medical authorities shared the view that trans fats were healthier than saturated fats. But endorsing trans fats as a replacement for saturated fats was hardly a shot in the dark. Growers, oil suppliers, and academic and government scientists had been working since the early twentieth century to commercialize soybeans and develop the partial-hydrogenation process, and by the 1980s partially hydrogenated soybean oil was to some extent already in use. When activists targeted manufacturers for “poisoning America . . . by using saturated fats,” nearly all targeted firms responded by replacing saturated fats with trans fats.
In Charles’ piece, Schleifer gave the example of one of the biggest targets for healthy food advocates: McDonald’s:
McDonald’s, Schleifer says, previously used beef tallow for frying. “People freaked out about beef tallow because it had saturated fat, and McDonald’s responded to that public outcry by replacing beef tallow with trans fat,” he says.
This kind of background is essential for creating a better understanding of how a regulatory action like this takes shape. Yet, in all of the stories cited above, there was no analysis of the quality of the evidence behind the ban. This is in part because the science is a little hard to find. The FDA devotes many pages on its website to trans fats but no academic citations. You have to go to the Federal Register to read the FDA’s report, “The Tentative Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils; Request for Comments and for Scientific Data and Information.” There the agency cites 66 different statements, guidelines, and studies to back up its action.
Over a few posts, we will break down some of the key trans fats studies to explain what went into the FDA’s decision.