Trans fats or the tale of the struggle to translate scientific evidence into political action


  • Klaus W. Lange



Trans-fatty acids, arteriosclerosis, mortality, sugary drinks, food regulation


Trans-fatty acids are formed during the commercial hydrogenation of vegetable oils. These partially hydrogenated fats, which improve the taste, texture and shelf-life of processed foods, began to be commonly used in the 1950s. They were considered to be a healthy alternative to saturated fats, which were believed to be a major etiological factor in arteriosclerosis. However, the good culinary properties of trans fats have been shown to be associated with detrimental health effects. They exert a harmful effect on plasma lipid levels and cause inflammation and calcification of arterial cells, which are known risk factors of heart disease. The first reports pointing to the dangers of trans fats were published in 1957, and these were followed by animal studies in the 1970s. Subsequent research was hindered by opposition of the food industry to the funding of research on adverse effects of trans fats. Nevertheless, by the 1990s, many studies had established a strong link between the consumption of trans-fatty acids and the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks. Scientific evidence regarding health harms of artificial trans fats, which had been mounting for decades, led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 to require manufacturers to label trans fat contents on packaged foods. In 2013, the FDA made a tentative determination that trans fats were no longer “generally recognized as safe†for use in human food. A ban of artificial trans fats in 2015 requires food manufacturers in the United States to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils from their products by 2018. This ban came decades after science had first linked commercially produced trans fats to an increased risk of heart disease. The fact that policy lagged decades behind science is likely to have caused large numbers of unnecessary deaths resulting from trans fat consumption. This time lag may be attributable to the food industry’s attempts to obscure scientific evidence and to the unwillingness of scientists to acknowledge new evidence defying common wisdom. A more recent example of the slow pace of progress in the protection of public health relates to efforts to reduce the consumption of sodas and other sugary beverages in order to prevent obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.