When all the talk tends to center around how the U.S. food system is failing people, it can be easy to forget its successes. But one of those instances has been brought to the forefront this morning.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that it will implement a new near-zero tolerance ban of partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fats. Food companies will be given three years to phase the ingredient out of their offerings. The decision comes on the heels of a 2013 announcement that a ban was imminent.
And it is a very big deal.
"It's probably the single most important change in our food supply, if not in decades then ever," said Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and a longtime advocate for the change. "This action alone will save many thousands of lives each year."
There are various artificial sweeteners that have been banned over the years, including cyclomate in the 1960s. But none of them, Jacobson explains, have been so clearly linked to tens of thousands of deaths like trans fat. Even the introduction of nutrition facts labels in 1993, he says, though it has helped empower the population, hasn't saved lives in such a way.
For more than a century, trans fat has been an essential part of the U.S. food system. Almost anything that was fried or baked had it. Foods that were made with trans fat tasted better, and, perhaps even more importantly, lasted longer. No one worried, because no one knew how dangerous that was.
But slowly, research started to catch on. In the 1970s and 1980s, studies began to suggest that eating the man-made fat might be tied to heart disease, at least in animals. Consumption dipped, due largely to fear that this effect might carry over to humans.
Then in 1990 a clinical study shook the ground. It found that eating trans fat led to higher levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol. It also spurred a whirlwind of follow-up research, including a study by the USDA, which the food industry hoped would exculpate trans fat, but did just the opposite. Consuming it, study after study found, was associated with increased risks of heart disease.
By 2003, the government required that all foods made with trans fat carry a label.
Perhaps the most telling sign came in 2006, when New York City banned the lipid from all bakeries and restaurants. The food industry had long complained that removing trans fat would be costly, and replacing it would be very difficult. But eateries managed just fine, swapping out the banned ingredient for various other oils.
"That was really the key," said Jacobson. "It showed that trans fat could be eliminated from pretty much anything."
Americans have cut their intake of trans fat by roughly 85 percent over the past decade. The remaining 15 percent will be a squeeze for many food companies, which have held out. Those include some well known popcorn, frosting, and biscuit makers. Jacobson has made sure to keep track of them on Pinterest, where CSPI pictures all of the offenders.
In three years, that will no longer be necessary. What was once a staple of most commercially sold food in the United States will soon be phased out almost entirely.
"The food industry will probably continue to argue that there are some foods where you need it [trans fat]," said Jacobson. "But that's just not true. The government knows that."
Even if switching over proves a big expense for some confection makers, it's safe to say that that's trivial when compared to the health cost associated with continuing to serve trans fat to what is already one of the most obese countries in the world.