FDA bans trans fats. No more heart disease?

source: US government work

source: US government work

Last week, the FDA announced that trans fats would no longer be considered safe, and must be removed from food, starting in 2018.  Why?  Trans fat intake is linked to higher levels of that artery-clogging cholesterol and higher risk for heart disease.  The rationale is that heart disease will now miraculously disappear.

Here’s another thing that might well disappear: tropical rain forests.  Trans fats are formed when liquid vegetable oils are hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature.  The resulting shortening has a longer shelf life and doesn’t go rancid.  It’s been used for decades in all kinds of processed foods for that reason.  Liquid vegetable oil doesn’t work well in these foods, and has the added problem of going rancid quickly.  In fact, if you eat a lot of processed foods, you’ll have a higher-than-average intake of trans fats.  How does this affect rain forests?  Well, the food manufacturers have to use something in their products.  If they can’t use hydrogenated fats, they’re going to switch to other fats that work in those recipes and have a longer shelf life, such as palm oil.

In fact palm oil is already showing up as a substitute in plenty of processed foods, including so-called “natural” peanut butter that doesn’t need stirring.  Palm oil comes from palm trees, which are planted in ginormous monoculture plantations, created by cutting down huge swaths of rain forest.  As any reputable environmental organization will tell you, reducing large swaths of tropical rain forest to sterile monoculture palm plantations kills off indigenous plants, birds, mammals and insects, while also impacting soil and run-off.

Unfortunately, tropical rain forests are far away and basically invisible to Americans who don’t much care about what’s in their chips or cookies, as long as they’re available.  Which is probably the bigger problem with trans fats.  Diets high in those fats are highly processed, which means whole unprocessed foods are crowded out.  To say that heart disease is solely caused by one minor component of a junky diet is laughable.  But as usual, our approach to health and nutrition is to obsess about single components or single nutrients and forget about the whole diet.

Eating fewer trans fats isn’t a bad idea.  The way to accomplish that is to eat few-to-none processed foods.  You automatically eat more whole foods by default, and get far more nutrients and fewer questionable ingredients, like trans fats, salt, sugar, additives and so forth.  I’d rather people changed their entire diet than just switch to non-trans-fat processed food.

Here’s what’s going to happen.  The ban will go into effect.  Palm oil will take over the processed food supply with predictable consequences for far-away environments.  There will be no measurable effect on heart disease here, assuming most people continue to eat lots of highly processed foods.  And food companies will have one more weapon in their Health Halo labeling arsenal: “No Trans Fats!”  Yay!  Buy our chips, they’re so much healthier because they don’t have trans fats.

The FDA has more information about trans fats here.

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