Monday, June 06, 2005

Trans fats

When I went to medical school people didn't know about the baneful effects of trans-fats. Which didn't really matter because they never taught us much about nutrition anyway. So I've had to learn. Trans fats arise when liquid oils are solidified by partial hydrogenation into solid shortenings and hard margarines. An additional objective is to extend shelf life and flavor stability. In other words, trans fats are there for the profit and convenience of the food industry.

The problem is that they are associated with increased LDL cholesterol and coronary artery disease (possibly also by affecting endothelial dysfunction and inflammation) and moderately increased risk of gallstones. There has been a fair amount of publicity about it in the lay press, leading some fast food chains and manufacturers to voluntarily announce restrictions in trans fats in their products In some cases it is marketing, pure and simple. Jay's Potato chips, for example, will be marketed as "no trans fat" although the chips never contained any in the first place. At least it's true, which is more than can be said for some other cases.
Fast food giant McDonalds has agreed to pay $8.5 million (€6.6m) to settle a lawsuit over artery-clogging trans fats in its cooking oils.

The firm will donate $7 million to the American Heart Association and spend another $1.5 million to inform the public of its trans fat plans.

The settlement is the result of action by a small US activist group called against McDonalds.

The San-Francisco activists challenged that although McDonalds had announced it would voluntarily change to a cooking oil with less trans fat by February 2003, the firm had failed to make the switch, and had neglected to inform the public of this status quo. (Food Navigator)
That's not all. Recently Florida agriculture and consumer services commissioner Charles Bronson (yes, that's really his name) announced results of an investigation of the accuracy of labeled trans fat levels in 33 food products. Only one was accurate. Such labeling will become mandatory in January of 2006 but many companies have started already, although apparently not accurately. Since trans fats are also associated with obesity, inaccurate labeling might also make the manufacturers liable for obesity lawsuits. If, that is, such lawsuits can be brought.

Consider the successful lobbying of the food industry in the Texas legislature as evidenced by its recently passed "cheeseburger law" which prevents such suits:
House Bill 107, to give the bill its proper name, was created to prevent speculative lawsuits against the food industry, which threaten to engulf the sector. The bill's author, Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, (R-Houston), called it "a preemptive strike on lawsuits against anyone up and down the food chain".

"You as an individual make your own choices, and it's not the restaurants' responsibility how you choose to eat," Senator John Carona, (R-Dallas), the bill's sponsor told the Houston Chronicle. "This just places responsibility where it belongs."

The action has certainly been welcomed by the food industry, which has found itself under increasing legal pressure to accept responsibility for the country’s growing obesity problem, and could set off a chain reaction in other states. Eighteen states have already banned these types of lawsuits, and legislation is pending in 27 others.
So it's your fault you gobbled all those trans fats, even though they were put there for someone else's profit and convenience, you didn't know they were there, and in fact you were told they weren't.

I get it.