One Down, About A Million To Go
Somebody pinch me. The FDA has mandated the removal of partially hydrogenated oil and/or trans fat from its execrable list of food additives that are GRAS – Generally Regarded As Safe. In doing so, the agency has taken a teeny tiny step in the transition from lapdog to watchdog. Of course, it's a matter of one additive down and about a million to go, but every journey begins with a single step and this is a good one.
Once upon a time, human beings ate real food. They lived and thrived on nature's bounty just as it was provided in farms, fields, forests, oceans and other natural resources. The only “additives” and “preservatives” came in the form of salts, spices, herbs and other equally natural substances and processes. Thus mankind existed for untold millennia. Granted, it wasn't always easy or convenient. Even after humans surmounted the need to hunt for their food or to pull it directly from the soil, they still had to shop for it, often on a daily basis. Fresh food was, after all, perishable.
And then came “The Modern Age,” the era of “better living through chemistry.” “Perishable” food? Perish the thought! Bread doesn't have to get moldy after only a few days. We can make it last for weeks! We can put whole meals in a box! A little bit of this and a little bit of that added to the food supply and words like “stale” and “spoiled” become practically obsolete! With our “modern” additives and preservatives, we can extend the useful life of almost anything. Anything, that is, except the lives of the people eating the darn things.
One of the biggest “improvements” in the cause of “shelf stability” was introduced in the 1950s when scientists began hydrogenating vegetable fat. The actual chemical process had been going on since the early part of the century when Proctor & Gamble's “Crisco” hit the market. A few years before that, French chemists used the technique to create margarine as a cheap alternative to butter and some scientists were dabbling with hydrogenating whale oil as a means of preserving it. But it took the convenience craze of the post-WWII years to really send hydrogenated products soaring. Within a decade, it was nearly impossible to find anything that didn't have something hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated added to it.
I really don't want to go into a long, pedantic discussion of the hydrogenation process with all its hydrocarbon chains and double bonds and talk of cis and trans configurations. If you want to know all the chemical details, look 'em up. The short answer goes like this: hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to make them solid. The parts of the equation that really mattered to the consumer were the parts that made hydrogenated products cheap and convenient. And food manufacturers were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Through their “Mad Men”-like advertising agencies, they quickly convinced harried homemakers that their products were not only more convenient to use, they were healthier, too. Butter was bad; margarine was better. Lard was lethal; shortening was sublime. We got pounded and pounded and pounded with this dreck until we believed it, aided by a government agency that was so deep in the pockets of the food industry that it didn't dare say or do anything to the contrary.
Not everybody drank the Kool-Aid (which, by the way, contains such wholly wholesome ingredients as calcium phosphate, Red 40, artificial color, artificial flavor, Blue 1, and BHT). Back in the 50s, a young University of Illinois researcher named Fred Kummerow had his doubts; doubts that were confirmed when he got a local hospital to let him examine the arteries of heart disease victims. His startling discovery of high levels of artificial trans fat led him to publish his first paper on the dangers of artery-clogging trans fats in 1957. But the food industry steamroller had too much momentum by then and people like Kummerow were ignored, stifled on the altar of profit.
Fast forward a few decades. People had begun to look around them and realize, “Jeez, compared to our grandparents, we're all dropping like flies.” By the 1990s, enough Fred Kummerows had raised enough awareness that consumers began rejecting the concept of “healthy” trans fats. Evidence was mounting that consuming “healthy” trans fats led to weight gain, heart disease, and even memory loss. In a cholesterol-conscious society, studies were showing that trans fats raised LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood while lowering the HDL “good” cholesterol. Ooops! You mean the stuff we've been shoveling into our bodies is not really as healthy as the guys on Madison Avenue say it is?
Of course, the puppets at the FDA were still dancing on the strings of “GRAS” as directed by their Big Food masters, but enough nutritionists and scientists were beating the drum with sufficient force to be noticed and consumers slowly turned away from the formerly “healthy” products of recent years gone by and began returning to things like bad ol' butter and lard. Never ones to go broke pandering to the whims of a fickle public, food manufacturers started to fall in step and march to the new old beat. Ad men were now racing to see who could slap the most “No Trans Fat” labels on the very products they had touted as “healthy” just a few years before. True to form, the FDA began to produce weak mewlings about “limits” so they wouldn't look as totally inept and superfluous as they really were. Example? The agency continued to allow manufacturers to include up to 0.5 grams of trans fat in a product and still label it as containing “0 Trans Fat.” Just one of dozens of regulatory loopholes through which profit-mongering food manufacturers continue to strangle clueless consumers.
The Big Nanny – aka New York City – enacted a ban on trans fats in restaurant food back in 2007. A noble effort, but a futile one. Far more New Yorkers were filling their faces and clogging their arteries with cookies and pies and cakes and snack foods purchased at grocery and convenience stores than were ever likely to consume trans fat in a restaurant.
But now it seems it will all come to an end – in another three years, anyway. The total ban on trans fats won't take effect until 2018 because the industry needs time to come up with new excuses.....er......to implement the transition, don't you know? But, as I said, it's a step in the right direction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that taking trans fat out of the food supply may prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 coronary deaths each year. Predictably, Big Food is not going to go down quietly or easily. According to a statement released on the heels of the new ban, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, long a vociferous and contentious mouthpiece for the food industry, said it would file a petition with the FDA that "will show that the presence of trans fat from the proposed low-level uses of partially hydrogenated oils is as safe as the naturally occurring trans fat present in the normal diet." In other words, they're going to keep trying to poison people because it's cheap and expedient to do so.
Don't buy it. I mean that literally. Don't buy it. Read the label. Anything that says “partially hydrogenated” fats or oils – I'm looking at you, Jiffy Pop Butter Popcorn, and you, Pepperidge Farm Coconut Three-Layer Cake, and you, Blue Bonnet stick margarine, and you, Pillsbury Supreme Buttercream Frosting – just put it down and walk away. Far be it from me to suggest that you can make all those things from scratch using fresh, wholesome ingredients. (Well, the popcorn, the cake, and the frosting, anyway. Nothing can make that nasty plastic butter-like substance wholesome.) But even if you don't think you can turn into a Suzie Homemaker overnight, at least look for products that are minimally objectionable in terms of additives and preservatives. As I frequently say, I am going to make the undertaker earn his money. I am not going to let Kraft and ConAgra embalm me while I'm still alive. And I damn sure don't need to pay Roto Rooter to clean the detritus of “modern living” out my arteries.
Congratulations, FDA, on finally growing a pair. Okay, a micro-pair, but a pair nonetheless. Now for the next step: how about taking a look at Panera Bread's recentlyreleased “No No List” of additives and preservatives and seeing what you can do there? If you only ban one substance per year, you'll be busy into the next century. And more of us might actually be there to see it.