Don't get too attached to your movie theater popcorn. A year and a half after issuing a "tentative determination" that partially hydrogenated oils—the main source of trans-unsaturated fatty acids, or trans fats—were unsafe to be consumed in any quantity, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is set to effectively ban the use of nearly all trans fats in food. (The ruling won't affect the "naturally occurring" trans fats in meat or dairy products.)
So if you've ever experienced a craving for such delicious junk-food delicacies as donuts, frozen pizza, coffee creamers, or canned cinnamon rolls, or fast-food fare like the Wendy's Baconator or Domino's extra-thick pan pizzas, get ready for a mouthful of disappointment: They are all products that currently rely heavily on trans fats. Once the FDA rule is finalized, recipes for all of the above and more will almost certainly have to be changed.
Without trans fats, these foods might taste worse–donuts, for example, would be more oily in texture–or preserve less well. Either way, they won't be the same morsels you've always loved. The FDA is dead set on making life a little bit less tasty.
The FDA and its supporters in the public health community argue that trans fat restrictions are necessary as a health measure intended to remove a dangerous substance from the food supply. Ironically, for decades many public health researchers pushed trans fats as a healthier alternative to saturated fats.
In 1961, for example, Time featured physiologist Ancel Keys on its cover; inside, Keys warned consumers to stay away from saturated fats, such as lard and butter, which come from animals. In the 1980s, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which now supports the FDA's trans fat ban, went even further, arguing that trans fats could serve as a healthy alternative to saturated fats. The food industry turned to trans fats throughout the '80s and '90s in part because of a requirement that food products with saturated fat be labeled—a requirement which, of course, was put in place by the FDA.
It increasingly seems clear, however, that the old public health wisdom about the evils of saturated fats was wrong, perhaps wildly so.
It's not that the science is wrong this time. Certainly there's no significant evidence suggesting that trans fats are particularly healthy for anyone, although the food industry rejects the FDA's characterization of the oils as dangerous in any serving size. But shouldn't the government's long history of reversals and follies when it comes to dietary recommendations, particularly with regard to fat, at least give one pause about the wisdom of a move as drastic as a full-fledged ban?
At minimum, history ought to tell us that there are usually unintended consequences, even to what seem like modest regulatory measures. The same may well be true again. When the FDA began its quest to eliminate trans fats in 2013, David Katz, the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, welcomed a trans fat ban. But he also told Time, "There are other ways to manipulate fat, and we have to be careful we don't wind up with another bad invention." One intervention, in other words, often necessitates another—and perhaps another after that.
In this case, it's far from clear that the FDA's trans fat eliminationism is necessary, even if you're worried about the fats' health effects. That's because over the past few years, Americans have rapidly shed their affection for trans fat–laden foods. Between 2000 and 2009, as the FDA instituted a labeling requirement and public health researchers issued a stream of warnings about the dangers of trans fats, consumption dropped by 58 percent, according to a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2013, The New York Times reported, average daily consumption had dropped from 4.6 grams just a few years prior to about 1 gram.
So the FDA is waging total war on an enemy that has largely been defeated. That makes this a demonstration of both the agency's relevance and its irrelevance—an opportunity to witness the great and bothersome power of the federal government, and its irritating smallness as well.