Any day now, the FDA is expected to issue a rule that will effectively ban the use of manmade, trans-fat-containing partially hydrogenated oils in all foods.
Most experts agree trans fats aren't good for you. The American Heart Association, for example, recommends eating no more than 2 grams per day.
There's some question about the difference between the manmade variety—those trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils—and those trans fats that occur naturally in beef and dairy.
As I wrote in a 2013 column in response to the proposed FDA trans fat ban, a recent meta-analysis found "the impact of artificial and natural trans fats on HDL and LDL levels to be roughly equivalent." A recent Harvard Medical School publication notes another study found "no difference in how the two different types of trans fat affected men." Men make up a significant portion of our population.
In any case, the FDA claims the ban could save around 7,000 lives per year. The agency has required food manufacturers to list the trans fat content of packaged foods since 2006. That's helped reduce the amount of trans fats in the average American's diet from far above to well below the American Heart Association recommendations.
So if Americans are already eating less trans fats than health experts recommend, why the push to ban them?
The ban comes thanks to a 2013 lawsuit filed by centenarian Dr. Fred Kummerow, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois who's been researching trans fats for more than 50 years. His lawsuit forced the FDA to act. The agency will do so by revoking the so-called GRAS status of partially hydrogenated oils. Without that status, anyone wishing to sell foods containing partially hydrogenated oils would have to petition the FDA to demonstrate their safety.
Interestingly, the lawsuit and court order follow virtually the same arc that saw the FDA ban raw milk—an action the agency rejected until a federal court forced its hand in the late 1980s.
The FDA's longstanding raw milk ban isn't the only good analogy to the trans fat ban. The trans fat ban is informative in light of another recent dramatic change government dietary advice, namely the U.S. government's complete reversal of course on dietary cholesterol.
And then there's salt, which the federal government has increasingly pushed Americans to cut from their diets. Those recommendations are now on the ropes. And according to a story this week by the Washington Post's Peter Whoriskey, scientists recently argued at a New York City scientific conference that "the persistent global appetite for salt might be a sign that humans are geared for more salt than health authorities would allow."
In addition to trans fats, salt, and cholestorol, I've warned before that ingredients like caffeine are also needlessly in the FDA's crosshairs.
If the federal government's dietary advice and actions are often wrong, there's also a lesson in the trans fat ban for farmers and food producers who use GMO crops—and not just because many partially hydrogenated oils are made from GMO crops. The lesson is that those who claim consumers need more information about food X—evident in arguments advocating mandatory trans fat labeling and in the familiar cry around GMOs that consumers have a right to know what's in their food—can easily morph into cries to ban food X.
It's unclear how—or even if—the trans fat ban will proceed. For example, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers, says it's planning to file a petition to delay implementation of the rule.
A delay here seems eminently reasonable. Putting the brakes on an increasingly activist and adventurous FDA serves the interests of consumers and food producers alike.