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.
Few consumers will notice much change, though, as trans fats have already been voluntarily removed from many foods, including Quaker Chewy granola bars. In 2006, the FDA enacted a requirement that trans fat content be labeled on packages in response to a petition by the nonprofit advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest, which had performed studies showing an increase in LDL cholesterol associated with the intake of trans fats. Years of consumer awareness and demand for trans-fat-free products, legitimized by local bans in New York City and elsewhere, led to widespread phasing out of trans fats and decrease in nationwide consumption by 85 percent over the past decade. Even the new iteration of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter contains no trans fats (or, purportedly, butter).
Today FDA acting commissioner Stephen Ostroff said the move “is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.” It’s extremely difficult to isolate the role of a single nutrient in a fatal heart attack, and this estimation may be optimistic given the currently modest national consumption of trans fats. In the late 1990s, at peak trans fat intake, Walter Willett at the Harvard School of Public Health calculated the effect to be at least 30,000 premature deaths annually. CDC director Thomas Frieden later endorsed an estimate of 50,000. But if Ostroff is right, and there is still much public-health ground to be won through this ban, fine. There is no coherent health argument for a high-trans-fat diet. If you like food that’s chewy and juicy and cheap and not spoiled, there are new synthetic ingredients introduced all the time to accomplish these ends. A few may prove harmful to our health eventually, and we’ll figure that out and introduce a ban over the course of decades, at first in practice, with dollars and stomachs, and then, once industry lobbying is minimal enough to be overcome, federal agencies will take credit for protecting consumer well-being, and that’s the way things tend to work.