With the rise of the fast food industry and a greater dependence on processed foods, the American diet grew increasingly laden with artificial trans fats accompanied by a side dish of clogged arteries. Now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed no longer recognizing partially hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats, as safe — effectively banning them from restaurants and supermarket aisles. This stand for public health is a welcome one that could prevent as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year.
The FDA is, in some ways, late to this party. In recent years, as the health dangers of trans fats gained wider acceptance, many major food purveyors such as McDonald's responsibly replaced the oils with healthier substitutes. Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, has pledged to eliminate trans fats from its products by 2016. And Crisco, once the poster child for trans fat, changed its recipe in 2007 to eliminate them. Consumption has also decreased. Americans ate about one gram of trans fat per day last year, compared to 4.6 grams daily in 2006.
Nonetheless, trans fats are still a staple of such processed foods as stick margarine, frosting, pie crusts, crackers, doughnuts and microwave popcorn. The FDA's proposed ban, which is expected to face little opposition, is a reminder that when it comes to sound public health policy, government still plays a vital role at the dinner table.