On November 7, the Food and Drug Adminstration proposed that partially hydrogenated oils no longer be "generally recognized as safe" -- a ruling that, if made final, would effectively mean companies could no longer use anything containing trans fats in their products.
I asked Houstonians what they thought about this ruling, and it turns out many people don't know exactly what trans fats are, and many are not even aware that they were consuming them.
Because I'm not a scientist, I turned to the American Heart Association to put the definition of trans fats into layman's terms. According to the organization's Web site, "Trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Companies like using trans fats in their foods because they're easy to use, inexpensive to produce and last a long time. Trans fats give foods a desirable taste and texture."
Basically, trans fats make food taste "better" and last longer for less money. But at what cost to our health?
Trans fats can raise the levels of LDL -- or "bad cholesterol" -- in your body and lower the amounts of HDL, or "good cholesterol." Research has also shown that trans fats can increase the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. All so that Twinkie will stay soft and ostensibly fresh for more than a few weeks.
Many manufacturers have already taken steps to reduce trans fats in their products in an effort to make food healthier and keep the artificial fats off of their labels after the FDA passed a law requiring better labeling in 2003. Fortunately, reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown a decrease in consumption of trans fats among Americans in the past six years.
Still, trans fats have not yet been eliminated completely. Until the FDA's new regulation is made law, companies are not required to list the amount of trans fat on food labels unless it's greater than half a gram per serving of a particular item. These trace amounts can add up quickly, and scientists say even small amounts can have an adverse effect on health.
It should be noted that trans fats do occur in small amounts in nature, but organizations like the FDA do not generally consider these to be dangerous.
The labels that you should be checking are those on items such as popcorn, baked goods, cake mixes, fried foods and frozen dinners, all of which use trans fats as a cheap alternative to healthier fats like butter and vegetable oil to help them stay fresher longer. On a recent search of grocery store shelves, though, I found very few labels listing trans fat.
When I explained the issue to Houstonians and talked to a few who were up on the current debate, I received much the same answer from everyone: Get rid of 'em.
"I don't eat prepackaged food for the most part," said one person, "so I really couldn't care less."
"Why would you eat it?" said another. "It's cheap and it's shelf-stable. Making your Twinkie last for six months in a package without being refrigerated is not an important reason not to ban those things."
"Try to avoid trans fats," a shopper at Whole Foods told me. "It's always nice when the government cares about our health. I know people got all angry about the soda ban in New York, but I thought that was a good idea, too."
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That brought up the issue of what many call the "nanny state," but most people I talked to seemed unconcerned with the government stepping in to protect human health.
"I think the government should have control over things that we create, just like any drug," one man told me. "I don't want the government telling me I can't eat duck fat. But telling me I can't eat crude oil that's been refined and turned back into something that resembles margarine I have no problem whatsoever with. That isn't something you're getting out of an animal. You cannot make trans fats in your home kitchen. So why the hell should a company be able to sell them to you when they know it's bad for you?"
For now, trans fats are still legal, and most of them pop up in products sold at fast food restaurants, where it is often difficult -- if not impossible -- to examine labels and ingredient lists.
The FDA will next take comment from the public and the food industry, but don't expect the ban to be instituted overnight.