For years, granola bars were like balsa wood. They could be instruments of blunt-force trauma. I’m not certain, but I believe several people were killed when they tripped and were impaled by granola bars. So in the 1990s, Quaker’s line of Chewy bars were a giant leap for granola-bar kind, landing them within the domain of, as Quaker put it, the chewy foods. That was possible in part because of trans fats: the purposeful placement of a hydrogen molecule on a fatty acid in such a way that created a modification of the standard cis unsaturated fat structure. Partially hydrogenated oils were at once soft and malleable while resisting spoilage. It was a triumph of science that made a shelf-ready product out of something as unimaginable as frosting, and made the buttery compound “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” a source of so much indignation.
And, a boon for food producers, trans fats never had to undergo approval by the Food and Drug Administration. They were a synthetic version of something that already existed in some foods, like red meat, in very small amounts, so why should they be bad? As in all things we put in and on our bodies, though, quantity is everything. After several decades of mounting evidence against the safety of consuming trans fats at levels above the trivial, today the FDA claimed a grandiose but ultimately late-game victory, acting on a 2013 proposal requiring that trans fats be removed from its long list of compounds that are “generally recognized as safe.” Synthetic trans fats must be phased out of all foods within three years.