Following the June 16 ruling by the Food and Drug Administration that trans fat is no longer “generally recognized as safe” and is now considered an illegal food additive, it has three years to get out of town and off our grocers’ selves. That is, unless processed food manufacturers petition the FDA for permission to use the additive in specific cases.
How the mighty have fallen, and it only took 100 years or so.
It seems like only yesterday we were being advised to avoid animal-fat-derived butter at all costs in favor of the “healthier,” hydrogenated, processed vegetable fats found in margarine. And it was so much more convenient; it spread so nice right from the refrigerator.
The marketing of health benefits associated with hydrogenated unsaturated fats continued without missing a beat even long after significant studies began to suggest exactly the opposite was true. Beginning in the 1980s, evidence of concern about the safety of trans fat present in hydrogenated fat began to appear, as well as a connection to increased risk of coronary heart disease. It was relegated to faint background noise in the marketplace.
After all, it was believed that foods made with trans fat tasted better. Almost anything that was fried or baked had trans fat. Its low production cost was hard to ignore, a benefit passed on to consumers at the checkout stand. Most importantly, foods made with trans fat offered increased shelf life and greater potential profits. Rather than change their ways, some chose to question whether these scientific results were reliable.
Slowly, research started mounting, bringing public attention to the case supporting these health concerns. Consumption started to dip and food manufacturers began to consider reformulating some products to eliminate artificial trans fats. Then in 1990 a food industry-supported study by the USDA, which the industry hoped would exonerate trans fat, ended up doing just the opposite. Consuming trans fat was now clearly associated with increased risks of heart disease. This led to a 1994 study that estimated the consumption of trans fat was likely to cause 30,000 deaths each year in the United States alone.
Flash forward to 2015. Now that artery-clogging artificial trans fat has at last been taken off the table, experts are beginning to cast about for the next troubling processed food ingredient that has to go. Admittedly, no exact parallel to trans fat has yet to be found. Trans fat is unique in just how bad it is for you, how common it was in the food supply and how unessential it is for nutrition.
There are some similarities to sugar. “I think that what trans fat does, in terms of increasing your blood pressure, increasing cholesterol, are the same kinds of things that sugar does,” says Thomas Sherman, an associate professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. “Certainly, the levels at which people consume simple sugars is toxic.”
A new study by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University finds that sugary drinks may cause as many as 184,000 deaths worldwide annually.
According to another recent study (published in the American Journal of Public Health), drinking a 20-ounce sugar-sweetened soda per day may age you as much as smoking. Indeed, high levels of sugar intake have been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease. Yet it’s unlikely that sugar will ever be considered “unsafe” to add to foods.
Before casting a vote on the next worst thing that has to go, we should start by taking a deeper look at this process of determining what is “safe” or “unsafe” in foods.
An ongoing hotbed for back-and-forth debate on this issue among scientists, policymakers and industry experts is in the area of everyday plastic food packaging and disposable containers. The government has long known that tiny amounts of chemicals used to make plastics can migrate into food. The FDA regulates these migrants as “indirect food additives” and has approved more than 3,000 such chemicals for use in food-contact applications since 1958.
Plastic food packaging is a major source of synthetic chemicals found in our bodies. Receiving a lot of attention at the moment is BPA, which has been found to leach out of products such as polycarbonate water bottles and the lining of metal food containers. Traces of BPA will show up in the urine of most Americans when tested.
Trace amounts of styrene from foam containers and cups are known to migrate into food, especially anything hot, oily or acidic. In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency National Human Adipose Tissue Survey collected numerous samples of human fat tissue. It detected styrene residues in all the samples. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences lists styrene as a substance “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer. Styrene has also been linked to nerve damage and hormonal disruption.
Could one of the biggest culprits in impairing our health be found in the constant bombardment of the smallest particles of substances unessential to nutrition, known to be bad news in higher doses, being allowed in our food system?
The body is extremely good at inactivating BPA, researchers will say, so good that the levels of potentially harmful BPA in the blood are too low to be detected.
The fact that a plastic bottle or bag or a foam cup can leach chemicals doesn’t necessarily make it a hazard to human health, we’re told. To the FDA, the key issue isn’t whether a chemical can migrate into food, but how much of that substance consumers might ingest.
Missing in this equation is the fact that the FDA doesn’t consider cumulative dietary exposure. The risk assessments have been done only one chemical at a time, which is not how we eat. There are plenty of experts on the other side of this debate who remain concerned.
While we wait for the breakthrough study to conclusively show what these chemicals are actually doing in the body, we are told to rely upon “the best science available” – however you determine it.
How about trying this? Rely upon eating and drinking out of toxin-free glass, ceramics, stoneware or BPA-free plastic and, when possible, eat certified organic products – until the protection of public health prevails in what will likely be a very long back-and-forth.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.