Since the 1980’s, a very popular ingredient in Kosher cooking has been margarine. Margarine can transform kugels, cakes and desserts into creamy, pareve delights. Although margarine and shortening are staples in most Jewish homes, there is an increasing awareness that these man-made products, known as trans fats, can cause serious health problems. First, a brief history of trans fats.
Trans fats had long been considered a good alternative to dietary fat from both animals and other sources such as tropical oils. According to the American Heart Association, the hydrogenation process was developed in the 1890s by the French chemist Paul Sabatier. German Chemist Wilhelm Normann then discovered how to make liquid oils into solids, thus creating trans fats. In 1911, Americans first experienced the first man-made fat with the introduction of Crisco shortening.
Food production was moved from homes and small businesses to factories and, with rationing and shortages during World War II, margarine and shortening began to replace butter and lard. The big switch to trans fats, however, came in the 1980s with a public advocacy campaign by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
In a 2012 article in Technology and Culture, the journal of the Society for the History of Technology, David Schleifer writes, “In the 1980s, responding to the connection that medical authorities made between saturated fats and heart disease, CSPI and another activist organization, the National Heart Savers Association (NHSA), campaigned vigorously against corporations’ use of saturated fats, endorsing trans fats as a healthy, or healthier, alternative.” Schleifer notes that not only did the scientific opinion of the time support this view, but that “growers, oil suppliers, and academic and government scientists had been working since the early twentieth century to commercialize soybeans and develop the partial-hydrogenation process.” For soybeans in particular, partial-hydrogenation was necessary to make them acceptable for the food supply, as the process removed unpleasant tastes and odors.
The public campaign not only targeted animals fats, but also tropical oils like coconut and palm oils. Schleifer writes that from 1981 to 1993, CSPI pushed food producers to transfer from saturated fats like lard, tallow, butter, palm, and coconut oils to trans fats. The push was effective and much of the food industry responded by switching to PHOs (partially hydrogenated oils). However, in 1994, scientific opinion changed again.
At that time, scientific research was beginning to prove what the 1956 study had suggested, that trans fats were more harmful than other fats and contributed to heart disease. Making a 180 degree change in their policy, CSPI began to petition the FDA to require trans fats be labeled on foods. In 2006, the FDA implemented this policy.
In 2007, Crisco, the first product with PHOs to be marketed in the United States, removed trans fats from their products. Other companies have made similar moves and the presence of trans fats has been greatly reduced in the food supply. A few weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration in the US, released a statement on trans fats, declaring it an unsafe food. In response, CSPI said in a press release, “In 2004, CSPI called on the agency to revoke partially hydrogenated oil’s status as a safe food ingredient altogether.” The organization that first advocated large-scale adoption of trans fats has come full circle.
To make matters worse, trans fats clog arteries. Clogged arteries are a sign of heart disease; they increase your risk of both heart attack and stroke. Here’s how it works: Trans fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol levels. This contributes to the buildup of fatty plaque in arteries. In the Nurse’s Health Study, women who consumed the greatest amount of trans fats in their diet had a 50% higher risk of heart attack compared to women who consumed the least. Some researchers suspect that Trans fats also increase blood levels of two other artery-clogging compounds — a fat-protein particle called lipoprotein (a) and blood fats called triglycerides.
Equally worrisome, population studies indicate that Trans fats may raise the risk of diabetes. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston suggest that replacing Trans fats in the diet with polyunsaturated fats (such as vegetable oils, salmon, etc.) can reduce diabetes risk by as much as 40%.
What foods should be suspect for containing trans fats? Foods like French fries and doughnuts are a given, but partially hydrogenated oil may show up in more foods than you think. They are commonly found in cake mixes, frosting, cookies, crackers, peanut butters, frozen meals, whipped toppings, margarine and shortenings, instant mashed potatoes, taco shells, cocoa mix, microwave popcorn, sauce mixes, pasta mixes, instant noodles, breakfast cereals, corn chips, potato chips and some low-fat ice creams.
The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia estimates that removing trans fats from the food supply altogether could prevent 7,000 deaths per year from heart disease.
Now that we know the dangers of trans fats, what can be done to prevent their usage? The Food and Drug Administration’s banning of trans fats from the food supply does beg the following question- is it government’s job to decree what we can and can’t eat? I believe just like smoking and alcohol, strong warnings are needed as an incentive. Today, health insurance is cheaper for people who don’t smoke, and auto insurance decreases when you show a long period of time without an accident. People who take care of themselves, don’t smoke, keep their weight in a normal range, eat well and exercise deserve a break. A big break! Those who drain the system should pay for the system. Recently, the mayor of NY banned all trans fats from restaurants in NY, along with stricter policies regarding smoking in public. He even tried to ban sales of extra large sugared drinks like soda and soft drinks. Such regulations are highly controversial. Personally I think the emphasis should be on educating the public and giving proper incentive for staying healthy rather than banning products.
Although there is increasing awareness in our community of the dangers, we have a long way to go. As those of you who read my columns know, I am not a believer of total elimination of any food from the daily diet, but in this case, elimination is the goal. We need to find healthier alternatives to our beloved whipping cream and rugelach and eliminate trans fats completely from our diet!
Eliminating trans fats from you dietary intake will most certainly “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a LIFESTYLE FITNESS COACH with over 18 years of professional experience. Check out the Lose It! web site – www.loseit.co.il