Trans fat to be banned! (But not really.)

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | November 8, 2013
Oh, the joy I felt this morning when I unfurled my morning Los Angeles Times (I read the print edition–I’m old school) to see this headline: “FDA moves to bar trans fat.

Booyah! It was great when they forced the food industry to list trans fat on food labels back in 2006, but this is the partial hydrogenated vegetable oil-free icing on the cake! It’s about time that everyone’s favorite governmental toothless watchdog grows a pair and recognizes that this artery-clogging fat should no longer be “generally recognized as safe.”

But wait a minute… There are two kinds of trans fat! The one that we’re talking about here is the artificial created kind. It was developed over a hundred years ago when a German chemist named Wilhelm Normann figured out that you could add extra hydrogen atoms to liquid unsaturated fats, making them harden at room temperature. In 1909, Proctor and Gamble bought Wilhelm’s patent and started making Crisco. The food industry quickly realized that these fats gave crappy baked goods like cookies and chips a longer shelf life, and soon Piggly Wiggly shelves the nation over were packed with trans fat-laden packaged goods. (Not that this really mattered, given it’s almost a law of nature that ‘Mericans will scarf down the whole package of Oreos in one sitting, well before the “Use By” date.)

Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, scientists started to wonder if trans fat might cause cancer and heart disease. Their suspicions proved valid, most notably when it came to cholesterol. Artificial trans fat has been shown to elevate LDL “bad” cholesterol while lowering HDL “good” cholesterol. In other words, it gives people heart attacks. These concerns reached a fever pitch in the 1990s thanks to activist scientists like Dr. Mary Enig and, a scant decade later, the FDA enforced the labeling thing.

However, like I said, there are two kinds of trans fat. The second kind naturally occurs in the first stomach of ruminants (cows, sheep, camels, yaks, etc) and works its way into their meat and milk–and there’s not going to be a ban on that.

What does this mean? It means you should avoid camel butter at all costs!

No, not really, but the situation is indeed tricky. If artificial trans fats are so awful, shouldn’t it stand to reason that natural trans fats are bad news too? Here’s the short answer: No one knows for sure.

It pains me to say what I’m about to say, given I’m such a whole foods advocate. I want so badly to tell you that whole milk and full-fat cheese are 100% awesome, but I can’t because the research just isn’t there. I also can’t fall back on the “it’s what the Good Lord intended us to eat” argument, like I can with fruits, nuts, seeds, and veggies. As much as I love a good, stinky Rochefort, consuming milk from another animal is a little unnatural. Hell, we’ve had to spend the last few thousand years evolving to tolerate lactose. Despite the obvious benefits of some dairy–probiotics in yogurt, for example–I’m not even sure that it qualifies as a “whole food.”

The meat thing is a whole other kettle of fish. I’ll get to that later.

But back to trans fats. When you explore the natural versus the artificial ones, reports are all over the map. First, you have this study that flat out says they both raise LDL. On the other hand, you have these two studies that vaguely show that natural trans fat might be a little better, but they were both funded by the diary industry (or “Big Bovine,” as I call it) so that dings their credibility.

Some people point to the benefits of Conjugated Linoleic Acid, or CLA, a sort of a natural trans fat. I say “sort of trans” because it only wears women’s clothes on the weekend. I also say this because there are different types of CLA, some trans and some cis (which is the opposite of trans). Anyway, there’s a lot of pro-CLA hype out there–mainly involving weight loss–but according to Examine.com, there’s very little research to back up the hoopla. I tend to agree with them.

The most helpful research I could find regarding natural trans fats was this 2011 review in Advances in Nutrition called “Effects of Ruminant trans Fatty Acids on Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer: A Comprehensive Review of Epidemiological, Clinical, and Mechanistic Studies.” It basically digs through all the research, then throws up its hands and says, “More research is needed,” which is science talk for “I don’t effin’ know.”

The review points out that some studies on rats use trans fat at levels that would be impossible for a human to consume. Other studies jumble a bunch of different trans fats together when they should be tested separately. The epidemiological studies don’t match the experimental studies. Basically, it’s chaos. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats, living together… mass hysteria!

I’m not telling you that you need to give up animal products. After all, just as there’s not great research saying natural trans fats are good, there’s also not great research saying natural trans fats are bad. But getting back to the whole foods “what our bodies evolved to eat” premise, early man just didn’t eat red meat daily (or dairy, for that matter). They did sometimes, but the daily access to cattle thing sort of evolved with the daily access to grain thing. (Something the Paleo set might want to consider.) When early man went hunting, provided he caught anything at all, he also caught fowl, fish, rodents, grubs, whatever. His “CLA-rich” red meat intake was limited. So given the science hasn’t proven anything solid about the benefits of natural trans fat, and given history indicates we were spending a lot more time at the prehistoric salad bar and less time at the prehistoric burger stand, maybe we should limit those foods. Enjoy your diary. Enjoy your red meat. Just don’t enjoy that much of them.

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