by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Trans-fat

Jan 4 2016

Politico Pro Agriculture’s pick of top 2015 food policy stories

Jason Huffman, Helena Bottemiller Evich, and Jenny Hopkinson of Politico Pro Agriculture have published their end-of-year assessment of game-changing events in food and agriculture policy last year.  Here’s their list:

  • Avian flu blew up the U.S. egg industry.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal got done.
  • The battle over the Dietary Guidelines turned even nastier.
  • The FDA banned most uses of trans fat.
  • The FDA said a genetically engineered fish is safe to eat.
  • The EPA released its final Waters of the U.S. rule, inciting the wrath of multiple industries, states and lawmakers.
  • A federal judge sent peanut company executives to jail for decades for their part in a giant salmonella outbreak.
  • The FDA released major rules to promote the safety of produce and imports.
  • The FDA doubled down on added sugars on food labels, proposing daily values for the listings.

I’ve discussed most of these on this site (all except Waters of the US).

I can’t wait to see what this year brings—more of the same, for sure, but what else?  Stay tuned.

Dec 2 2015

Funded study with negative result: Are ruminant trans fats healthier than industrial trans fats? Alas, no. The score: 80:7

Let’s take a look at a rare industry-funded study with results contrary to the interests of the funders.

It addresses the question: Is naturally occurring trans fat from meat and dairy products healthier than industrially produced trans fat?

The answer: not really.

The study

Vaccenic acid and trans fatty acid isomers from partially hydrogenated oil both adversely affect LDL cholesterol: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial.  Sarah K Gebauer, Frédéric Destaillats, Fabiola Dionisi, Ronald M Krauss, and David J Baer.  Am J Clin Nutr, November 11, 2015,  doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.116129.

  • Conclusions: Total cholesterol (TC), LDL cholesterol, triacylglycerol, lipoprotein(a), and apolipoprotein B were higher after VA [vaccenic acid] than after iTFA [industrial trans fatty acids]; high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and apolipoprotein AI also were higher after VA. Compared with control, VA and iTFA both increased TC, LDL cholesterol, ratio of TC to HDL cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B…VA also increased HDL cholesterol, apolipoprotein AI, apolipoprotein B, and lipoprotein(a)…whereas iTFA did not. c9,t11-CLA [conjugated linoleic acid] lowered triacylglycerol…and had no effect on other lipoprotein risk factors.
  • Funding:  Supported by USDA, Dairy Management Inc., Nestlé, and Dairy Australia. The funding organizations had no role in the conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; or decision to submit the manuscript for publication.


Everyone agrees that hydrogenated fats containing trans fatty acids (industrial trans fatty acids or iTFAs) raise the risk of LDL-cholesterol (the bad one) and, therefore, the risk of coronary artery disease.  But what about the naturally occurring trans fats that occur in meat and dairy products as a result of bacterial hydrogenation of fats in the rumens of ruminant animals (ruminant trans fatty acids or rTFAs)?

Some studies suggest that rTFAs do not raise the risk of coronary disease.  This study tests that hypothesis.  It found that the major rTFA, vaccenic acid, does indeed raise risk factors for coronary artery disease almost or more than do iTFAs.

To make sense of the study, you need to know:

  • In iTFAs, the two major trans fats are elaidic acid 25%, and vaccenic acid 10%
  • In rTFAs, the trans fats are vaccenic acid 45% and elaidic acid 5%
  • Therefore, vaccenic acid is the major trans fat in rTFAs

What about Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA, or rumenic acid)?

The study also looked at intake of another rTFA, conjugated linoleic acid, which seems to have more benign properties but is present in such small amounts that it hardly makes a difference.  Although this study found CLA to have no effect on risk factors for coronary heart disease, a study from independently funded investigators judged it to have effects similar to that of other rTFAs.

What took so long to get this study published?

David Baer, who works for USDA, is the senior author on this paper.  I saw a slide presentation he did on this study in 2010.  Its results were already available.

In 2011, his group wrote a review of ruminant trans fats, but did not report these results (they were known, but not published).

In 2012, Dr. Baer wrote about ruminant trans fats, disclosed his dairy industry funding, but also did not report these results.  He concluded:

It is still difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the role of rTFAs in modulating risk of cardiovascular disease as mediated through changes in LDL and HDL cholesterol. Intake of these fatty acids is typically low in the diet.

I heard about this study last summer and wondered whether its funders were holding up publication.  I called Dr. Baer and asked.  He said the funders had nothing to do with the delay.  Instead, life had intervened—collaborators left, he was busy with other things, and was having trouble getting the paper published.

The bottom line

The study was done with purified vaccenic acid, not dairy fat, in amounts higher than those likely to be consumed in diets.  The authors say

Evidence…suggests that VA [vaccenic acid] consumed in amounts and foods typically found in the diet is inversely or not associated with CVD risk.

That’s one possible interpretation, but check the title of the editorial accompanying the paper: “In equal amounts, the major ruminant trans fatty acid is as bad for LDL cholesterol as industrially produced trans fatty acids, but the latter are easier to remove from foods.”

The funders of this study must be disappointed.  It was undoubtedly difficult and expensive to do, since it involved synthesis of pure vaccenic acid and a clinical trial of more than 100 subjects.

The funders must have hoped the study would show vaccenic acid to be as benign or even healthier than conjugated linoleic acid.  They bet wrong on this one.

This brings the score to 80:7 (sponsored studies with results favorable to the sponsor vs. those unfavorable).

Jul 28 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership’s food issues: rice, sugar, Malaysian palm-oil, trans fats

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations are taking place this week in Maui, as usual, in deep secret.

Doug Palmer of Pro Politico describes the major food issues: dairy, origin names, pork, rice, and sugar.  The issues come down to market share.  Every country wants to protect its own products but have free access to markets in other countries.

Although not a food, tobacco best explains why the TPP makes people nervous.  US tobacco companies want the TPP to open new markets.  But one of the TPP provisions is said to allow corporations sue governments that pass rules that might hurt the corporation’s business.  Philip Morris sued Australia over its “plain packaging” law and is now suing Great Britain.

The US position is supposedly that a country’s measures  to protect the health of humans, animals, or plants should not be in violation of the TPP, and that challenges to tobacco-control measures should be cleared with TPP partners.   Malaysia, for example, has proposed to exempt tobacco-control measures from challenges under TPP.


The State Department has just taken Malaysia off its list of the worst countries for human trafficking (see the July 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report).

What a coincidence.  This allows Malaysia to participate in TPP negotiations.

But what bad timing.  The Wall Street Journal has just published a harrowing story about the de facto slavery of palm-oil workers on Malaysian plantations (the New York Times just did one on “sea slaves” forced to fish for pet food or animal feed).

As Rainforest Action Network said of the Malaysia story in a press release:

July 27, 2015 (SAN FRANCISCO) – The Obama administration has removed Malaysia from the list of worst offenders for human trafficking and forced labor today, one day after The Wall Street Journal published an extensive report on human trafficking and forced labor on Malaysian palm oil plantations that directly supply major U.S. companies. Malaysia is one of 12 nations in the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and inclusion of a country with the lowest ranking in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report would be problematic for the administration.

And then, there’s the trans-fat connection:  The US demand for replacement of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils has pushed Malaysia and other palm-oil countries to produce more palm oil, faster.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

Palm oil has been repeatedly named on the U.S. Department of Labor’s list of industries that involve forced and child labor, most recently in 2014. Activists have blamed palm-oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia for large-scale deforestation and human-rights abuses. Oil palm growers respond that the palm tree, a high-yield crop, is a useful tool for socioeconomic development.

palm oil

The TPP is hard to understand, not least because negotiations are secret.  In giving the President the go-ahead to sign the agreement, Congress made two stipulations:

  • Congress must be notified 90 days in advance of signing.
  • The terms of the agreement must be disclosed to the public 60 days prior to signing.

At least that.  TPP deserves very close scrutiny.

Jun 30 2015

The FDA’s latest move on trans fats

I’m still catching up on what happened during the week I was offline in Cuba (more on that later this week).

One big event was the FDA’s announcement that it no longer considers artificial trans fat as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for human consumption, meaning that processed food manufacturers need to get rid of it.  They get three years to do so.

Here are the relevant documents:

Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has petitioned the FDA to get rid of trans fats for decades, describes this move as a “huge advance.”

As for complications:

  • The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is worried about the half-gram loophole:  “FDA memos show…80 percent of these uses [of partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fat] don’t require disclosure of the presence of trans fat because of the half-gram loophole.”
  • Politico Pro reports that “food industry lawyers are already scouring the document in hopes of finding some way to shield them from legal action” and that a ban on trans fat will increase demand for palm oil causing widespread deforestation across Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • Politico Pro also reports on a lawsuit filed immediately against Heinz for using trans fat in its frozen microwave french fries and tater tots while marketing its products as trans fat free.

I vote for the FDA’s move as a long-awaited step in the right direction.  Progress!

Addition, July 5:  The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has a somewhat different view.  Trans fats are already gone, thanks to consumers, and all the FDA has done is to set up a basis for class-action suits.


Mar 25 2014

Food companies want to hang onto trans fats

Good try FDA.

ProPolitico Morning Agriculture has a story today that surprises me.  Food companies are opposing the FDA’s proposal to revoke the GRAS status of trans fats (see previous post).

Why am I surprised?  I thought we were done with this one.  I didn’t think it was all that difficult to find substitutes for partially hydrogenated oils.  When trans fats went on food labels, most companies didn’t take long to go trans-fat free.

Now food companies are complaining that the FDA has gone too far, needs to allow companies to keep small amounts in foods, and doesn’t really have the authority to revoke GRAS status.

Among the 1600 comments received by the FDA are these:

Writing in favor of the revocation are:

As a reminder of what this is about, here’s a taste of what I said about trans fats in What to Eat:

Trans fats are not normal.   Hydrogenation causes some of the hydrogens in unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids to flip abnormally from the same side of the carbon chain (in Latin, “cis”) to the opposite side (“trans”).   The normal cis unsaturated fatty acids are flexible, which is why they are liquid; they bend and flow around each other.   But the change to trans causes unsaturated fatty acids to stiffen.  They behave a lot like saturated fatty acids in the body, where they can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

Mind you, this is not new information.   My trans fat file has papers on heart disease risk dating back to the mid-1970s.   In 1975, for example, British scientists suggested that one reason poor people in England had higher rates of heart disease was that they so often ate fish-and-chips fried in partially hydrogenated oils.   Since then, researchers have consistently found trans fats to be just as bad–or worse–than saturated fats from the standpoint of heart disease risk.

The recent meta-analysis says much the same thing.

Let’s get rid of trans fats once and for all and be done with them.  I hope the FDA holds firm on this one.

Nov 7 2013

Trans-fat: FDA proposes to eliminate GRAS status

The FDA has just announced a proposal to withdraw GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status for trans-fat.

My first reaction: Isn’t trans-fat already out of the food supply?  Hasn’t this been one of the food industry’s greatest public health achievements?

Once the FDA started to require trans-fat to be listed on food labels, food companies quickly stopped using partially hydrogenated oils (the source of trans-fat) and found healthier substitutes.  That’s why most food labels list zero grams trans-fat.

But the FDA allows food labels to say zero trans-fat if its amount is below 0.5 gram per serving.

Some manufacturers are still using a little.  This new initiative will encourage them to get rid of those last little bits.

Contrary to the New York Times headline, this is not exactly a ban on trans-fat.  If trans-fat is no longer GRAS, manufacturers can still file a food additive petition to continue using partially hydrogenated oils.

The Federal Register notice asks for input for the next 60 days.

I say congratulations to all:

  • To food companies who worked hard to find ways to substitute healthier fats for trans-fats.
  • To the FDA for finally taking care of the trans-fat 0.5-gram loophole.
  • To Center for Science in the Public Interest for bringing health problems with trans-fat to public attention.
  • To all of the researchers who did the science linking trans-fat to higher LDL-cholesterol levels and to heart disease risk.
  • To the New York City health department for banning trans-fats from use in city restaurants.

Americans will be healthier as a result of all of your efforts.


At the moment, the FDA has not yet posted its Federal Register notice on the GRAS status of trans-fat. When it does, the notice should be available here.

CSPI’s home page on trans fat

The FDA trans-fat home page

FDA consumer materials

FDA guidance for industry


Sep 2 2012

Regulations do change eating behavior

My monthly, first Sunday column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I still don’t get it. Why would a city government think that a food regulation would promote health when any one of them is so easy to evade?

A: Quick answer: because they work.

As I explained in my July discussion of Richmond’s proposed soda tax, regulations make it easier for people to eat healthfully without having to think about it. They make the default choice the healthy choice. Most people choose the default, no matter what it is.

Telling people cigarettes cause cancer hardly ever got anyone to stop. But regulations did. Taxing cigarettes, banning advertising, setting age limits for purchases, and restricting smoking in airplanes, workplaces, bars and restaurants made it easier for smokers to stop.

Economists say, obesity and its consequences cost our society $190 billion annually in health care and lost productivity, so health officials increasingly want to find equally effective strategies to discourage people from over-consuming sugary drinks and fast food.

Research backs up regulatory approaches. We know what makes us overeat: billions of dollars in advertising messages, food sold everywhere – in gas stations, vending machines, libraries and stores that sell clothing, books, office supplies, cosmetics and drugs – and huge portions of food at bargain prices.

Research also shows what sells food to kids: cartoons, celebrities, commercials on their favorite television programs, and toys in Happy Meals. This kind of marketing induces kids to want the products, pester their parents for them, and throw tantrums if parents say no. Marketing makes kids think they are supposed to eat advertised foods, and so undermines parental authority.

Public health officials look for ways to intervene, given their particular legislated mandates and authority. But much as they might like to, they can’t do much about marketing to children. Food and beverage companies invoke the First Amendment to protect their “right” to market junk foods to kids. They lobby Congress on this issue so effectively that they even managed to block the Federal Trade Commission‘s proposed nonbinding, voluntary nutrition standards for marketing food to kids.

Short of marketing restrictions, city officials are trying other options. They pass laws to require menu labeling for fast food, ban trans fats, prohibit toys in fast-food kids’ meals and restrict junk foods sold in schools. They propose taxes on sodas and caps on soda sizes.

Research demonstrating the value of regulatory approaches is now pouring in.

Studies of the effects of menu labeling show that not everyone pays attention, but those who do are more likely to reduce their calorie purchases. Menu labels certainly change my behavior. Do I really want a 600-calorie breakfast muffin? Not today, thanks.

New York City’s 2008 ban on use of hydrogenated oils containing trans fats means that New Yorkers get less trans fat with their fast food, even in low-income neighborhoods. Whether this reduction accounts for the recent decline in the city’s rates of heart disease remains to be demonstrated, but getting rid of trans fats certainly hasn’t hurt.

Canadian researchers report that kids are three times more likely to choose healthier meals if those meals come with a toy and the regular ones do not. When it comes to kids’ food choices, the meal with the toy is invariably the default.

A recent study in Pediatrics compared obesity rates in kids living in states with and without restrictions on the kinds of foods sold in schools. Guess what – the kids living in states where schools don’t sell junk food are not as overweight.

Circulation has just published an American Heart Association review of “evidence-based population approaches” to improving diets. It concludes that evidence supports the value of intense media campaigns, on-site educational programs in stores, subsidies for fruits and vegetables, taxes, school gardens, worksite wellness programs and restrictions on marketing to children.

The benefits of the approaches shown in these studies may appear small, but together they offer hope that current trends can be reversed.

Researchers also suggest other approaches, not yet tried. The Yale Rudd Center has just shown that color-coded food labels (“traffic lights”) encourage healthier food choices.

And Rand Corp. researchers propose initiatives like those that worked for alcoholic beverages: Limit the density of fast-food outlets, ban sales in places that are not food stores, insist that supermarkets put junk foods and sodas where they are hard to see, ban drive-through sales, restrict portion sizes and use warning labels.

These regulatory approaches are worth trying. If research continues to demonstrate their value, cities will have even more reason to use them. If the research becomes compelling enough, the federal government might need to act.

In the meantime, cities are leading the way, Richmond among them. Their initiatives are well worth trying, testing and supporting.

**Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at E-mail:

Oct 24 2011

On Denmark’s “fat tax”

I have a commentary in the October 23 issue of New Scientist (UK):

Cover of 22 October 2011 issue of New Scientist magazine

World’s first fat tax: what will it achieve?

Enviably healthy Denmark is leading the way in taxing unhealthy food. Why are they doing it, and will it work

THE Danish government’s now infamous “fat tax” has caused an international uproar, applauded by public health advocates on the one hand and dismissed on the other as nanny-state social engineering gone berserk.

I see it as one country’s attempt to stave off rising obesity rates, and its associated medical conditions, when other options seem less feasible. But the policies appear confusing. Why Denmark of all places? Why particular foods? Will such taxes really change eating behaviour? And aren’t there better ways to halt or reverse rising rates of diet-related chronic disease?

Before getting to these questions, let’s look at what Denmark has done. In 2009, its government announced a major tax overhaul aimed at cushioning the shock of the global economic crisis, promoting renewable energy, protecting the environment, discouraging climate change, and improving health – all while maintaining revenues, of course.

The tax reforms make it more expensive to produce products likely to harm the environment and to consume products potentially harmful to health, specifically tobacco, ice cream, chocolate, candy, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, and foods containing saturated fats.

Some of these taxes took effect last July. The current fuss is over the introduction this month of a tax on foods containing at least 2.3 per cent saturated fat, a category that includes margarine, salad and cooking oils, animal fats, and dairy products, but not – thanks to effective lobbying from the dairy industry – fluid milk.

Copenhagen is the home of René Redzepi’s Noma, voted the world’s best restaurant for the past two years. To Americans, “Danish” means highly calorific fruit – and cheese-filled breakfast pastries. Despite such culinary riches, the Nordic nation reports enviable health statistics and a social support system beyond the wildest imagination of inhabitants of many countries. Danish citizens are entitled to free or very low-cost childcare, education and healthcare. Cycle lanes and high taxes on cars make bicycles the preferred method for getting to school or work, even by 63 per cent of members of the Danish parliament, the Folketing.

Taxes pay for this through policies that maintain a relatively narrow gap between the incomes of rich and poor. The Danish population is literate and educated. Its adult smoking rate is 19 per cent. Its obesity rate is 13.4 per cent, below the European average of 15 per cent and a level not seen in the US since the 1970s. Denmark has long used the tax system to achieve health goals. It has taxed candy for nearly 90 years, and was the first country to ban trans-fats in 2003.

Because its level of income disparity is relatively low, the effects of health taxes are less hard on the poor than in many other countries. But the Danes want their health to be better. Obesity rates may be low by US standards, but they used to be lower – 9.5 per cent in 2000. Life expectancy in Denmark is 79 years, at least two years below that in Japan or Iceland. The stated goal of the tax policies is to increase life expectancy as well as to reduce the burden and cost of illness from diet-related diseases.

Like all taxes, the “health” taxes are supposed to raise revenue: 2.75 billion Danish kroner annually ($470 million). The tax on saturated fat is expected to account for more than one-third of that. Since all food fats – no exceptions – are mixtures of saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, the tax will have to be worked out food by food. Producers must do this, pay the tax, and pass the cost on to consumers.

Taxes on cigarettes are set high enough to discourage use, especially among young people. But the food taxes are low, 0.34 kroner on a litre of soft drinks, for example. The “fat” tax is 16 kroner per kilogram of saturated fat. In dollars, the taxes will add 12 cents to a bag of crisps and 40 cents to the price of a burger. Whether these amounts will discourage purchases remains to be seen.

Other countries are playing “me too” or waiting to see the results of Denmark’s experiment. Hungary has imposed a small tax on sweets, salty snacks, and sugary and caffeinated drinks and intends to use the revenues to offset healthcare costs. Romania and Iceland had such taxes but dropped them, whereas Finland and Ireland are considering them. Surprisingly, given his party’s anti-nanny state platform, UK prime minister David Cameron is suggesting food taxes to counter the nation’s burgeoning obesity crisis. The US has resisted calls for taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, not least because the soft drink companies spent millions of dollars on defeating such proposals.

Leaving aside the usual criticisms, such as the impact on poorer people, I have a different reason for being troubled by tax interventions. They aim to change individual behaviour, but do little to change the behaviour of corporations that make and market unhealthful products, spending vast fortunes to make them available, desirable and socially acceptable.

Today, more and more evidence demonstrates the importance of food environment factors, such as processing, cost and marketing, in influencing food choices (The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60813-1). Raising taxes is one way to change that environment by influencing the cost to the consumer. But governments seriously concerned about reducing rates of chronic disease should also consider ways to regulate production of unhealthy products, along with the ways they are marketed.

In the meantime, let us congratulate Denmark on what could be viewed as a revolutionary experiment. I can’t wait to see the results.

Marion Nestle is the author of Food Politics and What To Eat and is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University

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