The Sad History of Trans Fatty Acids

Where did those nasty things come from, anyway?

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It is common knowledge today that trans fatty acids (or trans fats) are unhealthy for you - certainly more unhealthy than saturated fats. Eating a heart-healthy diet requires avoiding trans fats as much as possible. In fact, in 2015 the FDA decreed that trans fats were so dangerous that they must be completely removed from our foods within three years.

Strange to think that just a very short time ago, everyone believed just the opposite.

Where Did Trans Fats Come From?

Unlike saturated and unsaturated fats, the trans fats in our food are man-made.

Trans fats have been around for more than a century and initially got into our diets for economic reasons. But they really only permeated our food supply in a big way when the public health experts decided they were good for us.

Trans fats were invented in the 1890s, with a process that partially hydrogenated (added hydrogen atoms to) unsaturated fats. When applied to unsaturated plant oils, which are liquids that tend to turn rancid at room temperatures, partial dehydrogenation creates a product that is non-liquid and often quite solid, and that is very stable at room temperatures for extended periods of time. So, partially hydrogenated plant oils (that is, trans fats) can serve as a reasonable substitute for saturated fats in processed foods that are meant to have a long shelf life.

How Did They Get Into Our Food Supply?

In 1911, Proctor & Gamble recognized the potential of trans fats, bought the patent, and began making Crisco shortening. The use of trans fats in food products got its next boost boost during World War II, when there were butter shortages and the use of solid margarine products (laced with trans fats) picked up.

But the widespread incorporation of trans fats into the American diet really only took off when the experts determined it would improve our health. This happened after it was learned in the 1950s and ‘60s that saturated fats are associated with an increase in levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol (and thus, they concluded, an increase in heart disease).

It was also noted that vegetable oils - unsaturated fats - were associated with reduced cholesterol levels, and were therefore (presumably) healthy.

Whereupon our public health experts (employing the unshakable logic of the expert class), concluded that saturated fats needed to be drastically reduced from the American diet. Looking around, they found the perfect substitute - a product that had been around for decades, a product derived from healthful vegetable oils that, as a bonus, had the favorable characteristics displayed by saturated fats in processed foods.

They found trans fats.

Public Health Experts Do Their Thing

Naturally, these public health experts determined that trans fats ought to replace saturated fats throughout the food chain, for all Americans. Through their various public relations outlets - chiefly, in this case, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) - in 1984 the experts launched a massive public campaign to do just that, a campaign featuring the usual villains (evil, greedy corporations) and the usual victims of all this corporate greed (babies, bunnies and the like).

The American food industry, which had always featured itself as the champions of wholesome diets, objected to and recoiled at the accusation that they were intentionally killing their customers. But the massive anti-saturated fat PR campaign was effective; in a remarkably short time, food producers completely caved in. Trans fats rapidly replaced saturated fats in virtually all processed foods.

The result was the so-called ”Snackwell phenomenon," wherein a now-transformed, health-conscious food industry devised entire product lines of "healthy" snack foods that contained no saturated fats. Unfortunately, they were loaded with highly processed carbohydrates (the bad carbs), and lots and lots of trans fats.

The American Heart Association (AHA), joining in the fun, discovered a lucrative new revenue stream when it began awarding several of these calorie-and-trans-fats-laden foodstuffs (including, notably, Frosted Flakes and Pop-Tarts) their official “Heart-Healthy” label.

It is more than just arguable that the recent obesity epidemic we have seen in the United States was at least helped along by the promotion of the Snackwell phenomenon by our public health experts, who continued to publicize the dangers of saturated fats that were now absent from our newly healthy junk foods.


The evidence that trans fats were actually not good for human consumption - and indeed were very bad for us - actually began accumulating well before 1984. But that early troublesome evidence had no chance against the "settled science" that was powerfully and enthusiastically proclaimed by the experts from their various public platforms.

Only very slowly did the scientific evidence against trans fats pile up to the point that it could no longer be ignored. It was nearly a full 20 years before the Snackwell phenomenon began to be dismantled.

One might think that our public health experts, CSPI and the AHA might have shown a little contrition when the truth finally became evident about the trans fats they had (literally) shoved down our throats.  But they did not.

Instead, (led, incredibly, by the CSPI, which did an astounding 180 on the issue overnight) the experts now raised their full-throated indignation against those evil, greedy food companies, which had, in their own self-interest, inflicted these toxic trans fats upon our population (including upon those selfsame babies, bunnies, etc.)

For the experts, being experts, can never be mistaken. They simply adopt new positions, as needed, and ignore and forget everything they were saying yesterday. Such is the way of the world, and there is little point in lamenting it here.

The Moral Of The Story

But it may be useful to keep in mind the sad history of trans fats as our public health experts - with the same degree of surety, enthusiasm and indignation with which they inflicted trans fats upon us, and with the same declarations about the science being settled and that the mounting evidence to the contrary is to be ignored - are today attempting to mandate a physiologically impossible strict salt restriction across our population.

I'm just saying.

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Article Sources
  • Mozaffarian D, Katan MB, Ascherio A, et al. Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med 2006; 354:1601.