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Trans Fat Ban Could Bring Smaller Waistlines ... But At What Cost?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later today, in our parenting conversation and in honor of Native American Heritage Month, we want to take a closer look at research that suggests that the use of Native American imagery for sports and school mascots could actually be psychologically damaging to Native American children. We want to find out more about this later this hour.

But first, we want to talk more about trans fats, which are found mainly in partially hydrogenated oils. There is a new push to get these substances out of the American food supply. The head of the Food and Drug Administration recently announced that the agency has come to the preliminary conclusion that trans fats are, quote, not generally recognized as safe for use in food, unquote. Now food manufacturers have decreased levels of trans fats over the years, but many processed foods still have them - things like frozen pizzas or microwave popcorn or coffee creamers. We wanted to know what the FDA's announcement could mean for your table, your body and your pocket table. So we've called upon Dan Charles. He's NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. He's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've also called Dr. Leslie Walker. She is a pediatrician and chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital. Dr. Walker, thank you so much for joining us once again.

LESLIE WALKER: Yeah, thank you. Great to be here.

MARTIN: And we'll start with you. What do trans fats do? Why are they considered so dangerous for humans to consume?

WALKER: Well, you know, fats themselves, as a group, are not necessarily dangerous. But the thing that's dangerous about trans fatty acids is that they actually - we find that they actually increase the bad cholesterol and decrease the good cholesterol, causing much more cardiovascular disease, heart disease, plaques in the blood vessels. And so it's attributed to causing a lot more heart attacks and heart disease in people here.

MARTIN: Now the FDA is taking on artificial trans fats. Does that mean that there are naturally occurring trans fats, and do we have the same concern about those?

WALKER: There are some naturally occurring trans fats in animal fat. However, people do not think that they're as dangerous as the man-made trans fats.

MARTIN: So, Dan Charles, I think this issue kind of first got a big splash a couple of years ago when New York City and Philadelphia banned most trans fats from restaurants a few years ago. And we understand that the consumption of foods with these substances has really declined a lot, that manufactures have really made a big push to take them out of food. So why is the FDA moving to ban them now?

CHARLES: So, yeah, it's right. It's true. The consumption has come down a lot after the FDA required labels on foods and people could see, you know, this food has trans fats in it. And there were these bans in quite a few, you know, different municipalities. But they're not gone altogether. I think the numbers say they've declined by 75 percent, but you still find them in a lot of food. You find them in low levels in baked goods because below 0.5 grams per serving, you can say trans-fat zero on the label. And, you know, they still are considered among the most hazardous fatty acids that exist in terms of raising the risk of heart disease.

So the FDA said, OK, we're just going to say this ingredient, which is sort of a manufactured ingredient, is no longer in this category that we give to traditional foods like, you know, tomatoes or coffee. We don't test those and say, these are safe. We just say, we've always eaten them. They're generally recognized as safe. Now they're saying, partially hydrogenated oils created, you know, in a factory, we're going to treat them like a food additive. And if you want to get, you know, permission to use them in food, you have to come to us and show that they're safe. But we are not going to say anymore that these are generally recognized as safe as was, you know, done previously.

MARTIN: Now you brought some samples with you. What did you bring us, and tell us what you want to tell us about those?

CHARLES: So this is an interesting thing. So these are two packages of microwavable popcorn. One of them has no partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in it. This is Orville Redenbacher's Classic Recipe. The other one does have lots of trans fats. On the label it says five grams of trans fats. So, you know, the...

MARTIN: So what would be different if the FDA has its way?

CHARLES: So here's the interesting thing. This one manufacturer, the Orville Redenbacher manufacturer, has eliminated partially hydrogenated vegetable oil from the recipe. What's replaced it is largely palm oil. So what you see is the saturated fat level went - doubled, basically, from three grams to six grams as a consequence of this replacement. But they were able to do it. But then there are issues with palm oil. There are environmental issues and saturated fat isn't considered a great thing, either.

MARTIN: I was going to ask Dr. Walker about that - you know, what about that, Dr. Walker? I mean, the people who are, as we've mentioned - you know, the marketplace, consumers, manufacturers have really responded to the outcry around trans fats. But other people say that that just means that they'll replace these with saturated fats like lard or palm oil. As a doctor, as a pediatrician, as a person who treats patients, what are you most concerned about and why?

WALKER: I think what I would be most concerned about is just what people - getting the trans fats out or letting people be more educated on what they are and look for them. You know, saying vegetable shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil - that means trans fats. And what people find is if you decrease the trans fats, and even switch to, you know, the other saturated fats, in particular switching to monounsaturated or what we call polyunsaturated fats - the plant oils, the fish oil - if you switch fats, even though you might be eating more, you might still find that you're going to lower your cholesterol.

Lower the bad cholesterol, increase the good cholesterol. So people are learning in particular to watch for the trans fatty acids, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, or vegetable shortening. The ones that are solid at room temperature, those are the ones that you're more concerned about. The ones that are liquid at room temperature tend to be the better ones that you really want to have if you need to use - have an oil or fat in your food. So I think -what I've looked at is that a lot of places, when they switched from trans fats, they haven't always gone to the, you know, the next most concerning fat. Some of them actually have switched to different plant oils that can be safer and actually healthier for you.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the FDA's recent move to eliminate artificial trans fats from the American diet. The FDA has come to the preliminary conclusion that artificial trans fats are not safe for human consumption. This could eventually lead to a ban. Our guests are NPR's food and agriculture correspondent, Dan Charles, and pediatrician Dr. Leslie Walker of Seattle Children's Hospital. Now there's some policy debate here, as you might imagine.

I mean, Daren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation, you know, blogged about this in saying that the FDA's trying to control what people eat. This isn't even about behavior modification anymore since the public has already modified its behavior. And he goes on to say that the FDA's now playing the role of nutrition activists and ignoring the most important issue, the freedom of Americans. So, Dan Charles, what about that? I mean, is that a point of view that seems to have resonance in the early days of this announcement?

CHARLES: I'm not hearing that that much, honestly. The industry is taking a pretty cautious line. They are not - like the Grocery Manufacturers Association - they are not saying, yes, we're on board with this. We're going to eliminate trans fats entirely, and we think that's a good idea. They're not saying that. What they are saying is, we've reduced a lot of and we're committed to producing safe and nutritious food. They're not saying exactly, you know, where they stand. I mean, some will go along with it just fine, others will say, look, safe and nutritious, maybe we think we are already doing safe and nutritious food with a low-level of trans fats in them. How this plays out, you know, remains to be seen, but it will take a while.

MARTIN: But he also argues that this is - he says - this particular blogger with the conservative Heritage Foundation, I think, you know, well known to people in the policy field say, this is groundbreaking because the FDA's not trying to ban an ingredient that is unreasonably dangerous. A person doesn't eat a corn chip with trans-fat and then die. It's just like a person eating a corn chip with salt doesn't immediately die. It says that the dose makes the poison. That people can eat it throughout their lives and be fine. And that really, the issue is - it's what level you consume. So, Dan Charles, I mean, it's a philosophical argument, you know, clearly. Just like people say - well, tobacco, for example, is something that you cannot consume in a legal way and still be healthy...


MARTIN: ...But it should be your choice.

CHARLES: I mean, it is a philosophical distinction, you know. And I think what the FDA is kind of - where I think they're going with this is, this is absolutely true for foods that are traditional foods.

MARTIN: Like salt? Something, yeah.

CHARLES: Like salt. Like, you know, coffee, like lots of sort of fatty foods that we eat. But this - the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are different in the sense that they did not exist until they were invented, you know, about a century ago. They're an industrial product. People don't typically, you know, cook with them at home, right? These are things that were created, and they were perfect for the food industry because of various reasons actually. And it's an interesting story.

MARTIN: Sure. Long shelf life and stuff like that.

CHARLES: Yeah, long shelf life. You can sort of tune them to your exact sort of, you know, food. You can make them sort of more hard or less hard depending how you do the chemical reaction. They're an industrial product, and the FDA is saying, you know, we would not allow this if you came in to us, if you - we wouldn't necessarily allow this until you proved to us that they are safe. You've invented these things, you now need to prove to us that they're safe.

MARTIN: Dr. Walker, final thought from you. What are you telling your patients about this? I mean, particularly somebody who works with adolescents who, as you know, are not always as interested in, you know, nutrition as they are in, you know, what's fast, what's quick and what tastes good and what my friends are eating. What are you telling your patients about this?

WALKER: Well, I think a lot of kids actually are very conscious. Some of them are too conscious and they try to cut all fats out. And one of the things I try to tell them is that fats, we need fats. You need fats for your brain. Your brain's not going to work so well if you have a nonfat diet. And trying to get them educated and be more literate about what is healthy fat, you know, looking at the vegetable oils, the olive oil, the, you know, avocados, canola, fish oil. omega-3, fatty acids.

Letting them understand that there are some good ones that you actually need. And there are others that the industry sometimes kind of hides a little bit, that you need to look for to make sure that you're getting those because you have a lot of years to live. And you want to make sure that you have the lowest possible risk for cardiovascular disease. I think it's hard. I think when you talk about choice and control and knowledge, I think we don't have the choice a lot of times to know that we have those fats in our foods and now we will.

MARTIN: Dr. Leslie Walker is a pediatrician and chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital. She was kind enough to join us from NPR member station KUOW in Seattle. Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CHARLES: Nice to be here.

WALKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.