POV: Banning Trans Fats Is Just the Beginning
A good first step in a long, hard journey
An open letter to the Food and Drug Administration:
Thank you, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for protecting the food supply in the United States by proposing to ban partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs), from which come trans fats. Of course, this is only one step in the long journey towards making the food supply generally safe. Because research has shown that PHOs are a poison, the FDA has an obligation to declare that they should be removed from all processed foods. Some manufacturers and restaurants have already removed or reduced trans fats in the products and foods they sell.
What foods still have PHOs? Well, Oreos do not—since 2006. (But Oreos are still not good for you; more on this later.) There are still PHOs in many other cookies, cakes, and baked processed goods, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, and ready-to-use frostings. In other words, most of the foods that children love and that parents tend to give to their children for nourishment and for “fun.”
You might ask the FDA, “Why did you target just PHOs?” They would say, “We cannot target everything.”
My 13-year-old son now understands that processed foods and candy are not good for you. He refused to go trick-or-treating this Halloween. He doesn’t quite understand trans fats, however. So we still need to protect children against an additive that clogs your arteries worse than saturated fat does. The good news is that we are in the process of raising a generation of children who will reject the nonfood poisons that we have been feeding them and ourselves for the past 40 years. Thank heaven for little boys and girls.
However, there are many children before that age of reason and understanding who cannot make their own choices about foods and who have been fed Oreos (including before Nabisco removed trans fats) every day. Plus there are children who drink lots of sugar-sweetened beverages and develop obesity and inflammation—even though there are no trans fats in those beverages. There is much more work to do to make our food supply safe, unfortunately. The next target? Let’s make it sugar-sweetened beverages, which have absolutely no nutritive benefit beyond a lot of sugar calories, which you might need if you are running a marathon.
After we tackle that one? The going gets tougher because everyone likes a sweet now and then. We cannot ban all sweets and processed foods. We will need to become more creative and try perhaps to fortify foods with nutritive value, while lowering the sugar and salt content of many currently available foods. The FDA is attempting to do this with salt in processed foods. The time has come to attempt this with sweets and other processed desserts like cakes, cookies, frostings, shakes, and so forth. Our palates will change eventually. I would recommend lowering sugar content, just as we are targeting salt content in foods, gradually over a 10-year period.
I run the Boston Medical Center Weight Management Center, where we see 500 patients each month for obesity, type II diabetes, and other comorbidities related to obesity. Many of these patients are of limited means and cannot afford to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein on a daily basis. We have a food pantry and food demonstration kitchen; BMC is the only hospital in the country with such a setup. Most of our food pantry clients are overweight or obese. They are food-insecure, uncertain of where their future meals will come from. We need to provide better food choices that they can afford if we want to ensure that our country’s children grow up to their full potential. It is a matter of political and social interest on many levels.
May the FDA continue to do its job to protect our food supply and country.
Caroline Apovian, a School of Medicine professor of medicine, can be reached at Caroline.Apovian@bmc.org.
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