This past summer, some 50 years after concerns were first raised about a possible link between trans fats and heart attacks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of trans fats in processed food items, are no longer “generally recognized as safe” in human food. Processed food manufacturers will have three years to reformulate their products or request an exemption. This action is expected to prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks a year. Multiply that by 50 years.
Trans fats are found throughout the processed food industry in cookies, crackers, cakes and pies; frosting and shortening; potato chips, microwave popcorn, French fries, and fried chicken; doughnuts, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, and frozen pizzas; stick margarine and non-dairy coffee whiteners. They entered the food supply in the early 1900’s as Crisco®, so named for “crystallized cottonseed oil.” Crisco® was invented in the late 1800’s as William Procter and James Gamble sought an inexpensive fat to replace tallow, a costly raw material required for their candle- and soap-making businesses. By 1905 they owned eight cottonseed mills, and the knowledge to convert liquid cottonseed oil to a solid. With the candle market shrinking, they made a startling decision, in retrospect, to market Crisco® as a food. Cheap and with an unnaturally long shelf life, it quickly became a staple in homes and factories. But it was only in the kitchen that trans fats worked as predicted; with regard to their deleterious effect on human health, no one would know for generations to come.
All kinds of immigrant communities, eager to adopt American customs, became lucrative markets for processed-food manufacturers. For all kinds of newly minted Americans, margarine, “vegetable shortening” and, later, non-dairy coffee whiteners rapidly supplanted traditional fats. To attract the ethnic markets, Procter & Gamble solicited endorsements from community leaders, organized picnics and outings, printed cookbooks to showcase the use of its manufactured products in traditional recipes.
What’s Next After Trans Fats?
While Crisco® is no longer made from cottonseed oil, it still contains trans fats, which means that it will require reformulation under the new FDA guidelines. But cottonseed oil continues to predominate in many other manufactured products. Why?
From a scientific standpoint, cottonseed oil is highly stable chemically. It is not easily broken down by heat, oxygen, or time. Stability lengthens shelf life, which raises profitability. Cottonseed oil owes its stability to the fact that it contains extremely high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are strongly pro-inflammatory and, like trans fats, a likely contributor to the epidemic of chronic inflammatory diseases in Western society.
Cotton seeds entered the food supply inadvertently, at a time when science understood virtually nothing about their pro-inflammatory properties. Just as with trans fats, there is a price. We pay for the convenience of eating cottonseed oil with our health.
Replacing Manufactured Calories with Food
If present trends continue, half of all Medicare recipients are expected to carry a diagnosis of diabetes in the coming decades. Responsibility for the cost of the diabetes and obesity epidemics eventually comes to lie, therefore, at the feet of each and every one of us. Consumers have the power to transform the food supply to a greater extent than they realize. You vote every time you shop, every time a bar code passes a scanner. Why wait three years when you can stop buying trans fat now? Why wait for the FDA to initiate their evaluation of the evidence against cottonseed oil when you can decline to purchase products made with it today?
Short-term convenience must not trump the long-term health of our communities. We can learn to bake with olive, coconut, and sesame oil instead of margarine. Instead of non-dairy creamers, we can try coconut, almond, soy or rice milk in tea and coffee. Like our ancestors, we can take the opportunity to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. If we don’t begin to spend our hard-earned dollars on real, nutritious food, then we will spend it at the pharmacy. The trans fat ban is a start.