What Happened To Trans fats?
Scores of recent books tell the same story: food companies are evil, processed food makes us sick and fat, and American regulators are in industry's pocket. While these books are not necessarily incorrect, they are usually fatalistic. those that do call for change typically envision the wholesale replacement of current food systems with hyper-localized production supported by highly motivated, morally conscientious consumers. I tell a different, more nuanced story about how change actually works in the system that, for better or for worse, feeds most Americans. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which contain Trans fats, were a mainstay of American food manufacturing for nearly a century. But in the last decade, manufacturers voluntarily replaced Trans fats in thousands of products. Conventional wisdom about venal food companies bent on making us sick and fat cannot explain what happened to Trans fats.
I found that activists, medical authorities and industry routinely promoted Trans fats as the healthy alternative to saturated fats, especially in the 1980's. When new research in the 1990's indicated that Trans fats could actually be more unhealthy than saturated fats, manufacturers and trade associations funded a USDA laboratory to carry out research meant to defend Trans fats. But the industry-funded USDA research confirmed that Trans fats indeed increased risk factors for heart disease. Paradoxically, I found that this corporate "meddling" in science convinced some trade associations and manufacturers to begin developing Trans fats alternatives. Federal regulators then specifically designed Trans fat labeling to create incentives for industry to commercialize those alternative technologies. Meanwhile, oilseed companies, suppliers, trade associations and manufacturers began the complex and expensive process of developing technologies to replace Trans fats.
What does the Trans fat story tell us about changing American food? And beyond food, what lessons does the Trans fats story offer for efforts to change other technologies? Food activists, scientists, and government and industry can develop convergent interests and coordinate approaches to achieving newly defined goals. But replacing incumbent technologies is a long and difficult process. Questions remain about how much change is enough to address widespread concerns about obesity, chronic disease, environmental sustainability and food security.