Let me set the scene.
I was deep into a relaxing weekend with the family, far away from the internet and surrounded only by the most limited news (local newspaper + local tv). I was even managing to wean myself away from 24-7 hurricane watching, since I lacked The Weather Channel.
But then yesterday I read Nina Teicholz's article "Heart Breaker," from Gourmet's June 2004 issue (article begins on p. 100). I apologize, but I cannot seem to find the thing online. So go to your library--you know, the old way--and get it.
The gist is, that "trans fats" are much worse for your body than saturated fats, even though there was much hubbub about the latter and we are just now hearing about the former. For those of you who are not nutrition nuts, trans fats are a multibillion dollar industry. They are made by bombarding vegetable oil with hydrogen, thereby converting it from a liquid into a solid. They appear in many cookies, candies, cakes, crackers, margarines, and fried foods. In July the FDA announced that beginning in July 2006 manufacturers must print information about trans fats on labels.
The problem with trans fats is that in addition to their association with cancer, they raise the bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL). That means they can cause heart disease. According to Dr. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard, for every 4-5 grams of trans fat you eat (every day?), your risk of heart disease nearly doubles. He has figured that on average Americans eat 5-6 g of trans fats daily.
The article starts by telling the story of a publication by Dr. Mary Enig:
"Here's the paper I wrote that made me realize just now much hot water I could get myself into on this issue," says Enig, shuffling through files in the suburban Maryland offices of the consulting firm Enig and Associates, where she is director of the nutritional services division. Even at age 73, the semi-retired Enig manages to exude an air of industry and determination. She pulls out a folder now wilting with age and waves a 1978 article published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. In it, she argued that a major government report correlating cancer with saturated fats was, in fact, wrong. The data cited in the report showed a much stronger link between cancer and trans fats, asserted Enig, and deserved further study.
"Not too long after that, these two guys from the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils--the trans fat lobby, basically--visited me and, boy, were they angry," she recalls. "They said they'd been keeping a careful watch to prevent articles like mine from coming out in the literature and didn't know how this horse had gotten out of the barn."
To my mind, one of the most important pieces of information in that passage is the date: 1978. In other words, science figured out a long time ago that these substances pose serious health risks, but only now is the FDA responding.
Even more galling than the constantly changing information we get from so-called authorities, though, is the question of how something as harmful as trans fats managed to make its way into 40 percent of baked goods (cookies, crackers, cakes, etc.) despite warnings dating back nearly 50 years.
Trans fats are a multibillion dollar a year industry; companies that hydrogenate oils include Bunge Foods, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland. (And the list of manufacturers that use trans fats in their products accounts for almost every major company in the food industry: Kraft, Nabisco, Kellogg, and Nestle are just a few.) Many of the companies that hydrogenate are represented by the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, which for decades has been quietly working to squelch bad news about trans fats. As far back as 1968, the ISEO was mentioned in an internal memo written by the medical director of the American Heart Association: According to the memo, the ISEO objected to the AHA's intention to include a warning about trans fats in its dietary guidelines; subsequently, the AHA took it out.
If you want more information about the trans fat content in foods, you can check out the listing on the TransFree America website. There is also good information about Trans Fats on the website of the Center for Science in the Public Interest .
But since accurate labeling of this information does not really exist yet, your best bet is to look for the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" or "shortening" on food labels, especially when they occur toward the top of the list. Based on what I've found in the last couple of days, I think you'll be surprised by its ubiquity.