Thursday, November 7, 2013

FDA to Delist Trans Fat

The Food and Drug Administration today proposed removing artificial trans fat from its Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) list of food ingredients that can be used with few or no restrictions. That might sound like a technical change, and the FDA presents it in those terms, but it is a revolution in food safety.

The FDA cites the estimated 5,000 heart attack deaths caused annually by trans fat. Some experts suggest a much higher number. Yet, strange at it may sound, heart attack death is actually one of the smaller effects of trans fat. Trans fat is a badly shaped fat molecule. Fat molecules form cell walls, so when trans fat is part of that mix, the result is a badly formed cell wall that tends to leak under stress. And guess what is made of cells: your entire body. So when we say trans fat causes leaky cell walls, what that really means is that it causes your whole body to start to break down. This creates openings for fungi such as yeast to attack your body. It is a lot like having the decay associated with death going on while you are still alive.

There is a great deal of irony in this effect. The reason food manufacturers make trans fat is that it resists decay better than natural fat. But the same qualities that make trans fat last a long time at room temperature also make it difficult to metabolize. The trans fat in your body is harder to burn off than natural fat — not good news if you want to lose weight. The best answer for trans fat is to not eat it if you can help it, but the FDA hasn’t been helping in that regard. It not only encourages trans fat in food, but allows moderate amounts of it, up to 0.5 gram per serving, before food manufacturers are supposed to tell you it’s there. Food manufacturers routinely go right up to that 0.5 gram limit. At that rate, you could be eating 2 kilograms a year of trans fat even if you stick to foods that are labeled as trans fat free.

Some of the dangers of trans fat have been well known to science since about 1994. Yet it is still on the “safe” list — a governmental lie that has been allowed for the past generation. As the FDA begins the slow process of changing its policies, it is understandable that it will be downplaying the change. The government is not about to say, “We’ve been encouraging food manufacturers to put potentially deadly poison in your food, but that is going to change in a few years.” Yet that is essentially the situation.

The proposed FDA rule does not affect “natural” trans fat, but I don’t think that matters. In reality trans fat occurs only in trace amounts in nature. The “natural” trans fat that the FDA is referring to is found in meat and milk, primarily from cows that are fed candy (along with bread and other surplus food) that contains artificial trans fat. If you think it’s natural to feed cows candy that contains dangerous chemicals, maybe you could work for the FDA too. “Natural” trans fat is really just another form of artificial trans fat. But this also means that as food manufacturers change their recipes, the “natural” trans fat will gradually go away too. Eventually, the surplus candy fed to cows won’t be so loaded with trans fat.

Changes won’t occur right away, so read food labels and avoid food that lists trans fat or that comes from a manufacturer that uses trans fat in any of its other products.

The partial ban on trans fat in New York City restaurants helped pave the way for today’s FDA action. When that ban went into effect, restaurant owners complained that the flavor of food would suffer. Yet restaurant patrons barely noticed the change. This makes sense when you consider that trans fat is an artificial chemical that essentially has no flavor of its own, the result of the same chemical properties I have already mentioned. As we find our way out from the effects of a century of eating trans fat, some thanks has to go to New York for paving the way.