While on a recent family outing, we did a number of firsts for my nine-year old daughter: first bubble gum, first time seeing cousins that live a good distance away and first Twinkie. She was a bit starstruck by the Twinkie–the soft sweet cake with creamy icing filling wrapped in shiny cellophane astonished her–so I burst her bubble right away.
“This is lab food, honey,” I said. “It’s not real.”
One of the ingredients in the Twinkie, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs,) was, in fact, banned this week by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This kind of oil, a trans fat, has been used in our food supply since about 1910, when Proctor and Gamble got the rights to chemist Wilhelm Normann’s patent and created Crisco.
It’s not really big news that FDA has banned PHOs. In 2006, they mandated that food manufacturers had to report trans fat levels on their nutrition labels, who have since then been phasing them out of their recipes. As early as the 1950s, signs were showing that hydrogenated oils could be causing an uptick in heart disease, heart attacks and deaths, but the food industry largely ignored it. From the ’60s through to the ’80s PHOs were hip. Animal fats became the dirty term, and advocates of hydrogenated oils painted them as a healthy alternative.
Hydrogenating oils takes a liquid fat and makes it into a solid. That makes them useful and shelf stable in snack foods, restaurant deep fryers and fast food chains. But by the 1990s, research on trans fats showed them as the culprit of coronary disease and an estimated 20,000 deaths every year in the US.
Today, the National Academy of Science (NAS) says there’s no safe level of trans fat consumption, based on their findings in 2002 that showed trans fatty acids are not essential and do not show any health benefits. Given that trans fats are naturally present in most animal foods (in trace amounts), the NAS has not recommended their elimination. Advocates of lard have wasted no time taking advantage of this situation. In fact, I just received a recent press release from Mangalitsa Pork Farm, hailing the benefit of their premium lard.
While the scientific arguments over fats will be ongoing, regulation on partially hydrogenated oils are still in your court. While you won’t find them in Crisco anymore because most supermarket snacks, margarines, packaged goods have already phased them out, they still hide in many foods you eat. Despite the FDA ban that goes into full effect in 2018 (they are giving producers three years to be compliant), it’s difficult to say whether your local bakery or favorite restaurant is still be using hydrogenated oils or how much goes into your French fries at the drive-thru. Quizzing restaurant management is the only sure way to know.