Artificial Trans Fat: A Timeline
Artificial trans fat dates back to the early 1900s, when German chemist Wilhelm Normann found that liquid vegetable or fish oils could be treated with hydrogen gas to make them solid or semi-solid. Versatile, long-lasting, and cheaper than animal fats such as butter, beef tallow, or lard, partially hydrogenated oils quickly became popular in the form of margarine, shortening, and frying oils.
Partially hydrogenated oils were long believed to be safe, and indeed were assumed to be healthier than the animal fats they sometimes replaced. While preliminary human and animal studies in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that trans fat promoted heart disease, 1976 and 1985 reviews commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration concluded that the overall evidence indicated that partially hydrogenated oils and trans fat were not harmful. By the early 1990s, however, clinical and epidemiology studies established clear-cut evidence that industrially produced trans fat caused heart disease. Like saturated fat, trans fat increases levels of LDL, or the “bad,” cholesterol, which promotes heart disease. But unlike saturated fat, trans fat also lowers HDL, the “good” cholesterol that is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
What follows are some key milestones in a 20-year-long campaign to get artificial trans fats out of the food supply.
- 1994: CSPI formally petitions FDA to require trans fat to be listed on Nutrition Facts labels
- 2002: Institute of Medicine recommends that people consume as little trans fat as possible
- 2003: Denmark becomes the first country to virtually eliminate artificial trans fat from foods
- 2003: FDA finalizes rule requiring food manufacturers by 2006 to list trans fat on Nutrition Facts labels
- 2003: California lawyer Steven Joseph (bantransfat.com) sues McDonald's for quietly reversing its widely publicized switch from partially hydrogenated oil to a safer oil. He also threatens to sue Kraft for not disclosing on labels the presence of artificial trans fat in Oreos cookies.
- 2004: CSPI petitions FDA to prohibit the use of partially hydrogenated oil and to require restaurants to disclose their use of partially hydrogenated oil (FDA rejected the latter petition)
- 2004: CSPI takes out full-page ad in The New York Times, slamming McDonald's for "Broken McPromise" on trans fat
- 2005: McDonald's settles the 2003 California lawsuit, paying $7 million to the American Heart Association for a trans-fat education campaign
- 2006: Trans fat labeling becomes mandatory on packaged foods' Nutrition Facts labels
- 2006 CSPI lab tests expose high levels of trans fat in French fries at hospital cafeterias—and in the cafeteria of the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters in Washington
- 2006: CSPI sues KFC for using partially hydrogenated oil for frying chicken, prompting KFC to announce later that year its switch to trans-fat-free cooking oil
- 2006: New York City Board of Health adopts regulation virtually eliminating artificial trans fat in foods sold by city's restaurants and bakeries. That action was emulated by a dozen other local governments.
- 2007: Crisco reformulates its iconic shortening to have less than one-half gram of trans fat per serving
- 2007: Starbucks ends its use of artificial trans fat
- 2007: CSPI files lawsuit against Burger King for using partially hydrogenated oil in deep fryers, accelerating that company's 2008 change to trans-fat-free oil
- 2008: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs legislation phasing out artificial trans fat from California restaurants
- 2010: Study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds food manufacturers replacing trans fat with healthier fats
- 2011: Walmart requires suppliers to phase out artificial trans fat by 2015
- 2012: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds a 58 percent decline in trans fat in blood between 2000 and 2009
- 2013: Long John Silver's announces it will become trans-fat-free by the end of the year, after CSPI called its "Big Catch" meal the worst restaurant meal in America
- 2013: FDA submits for public comment its preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oil is no longer GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe.”