Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Ban on trans-fat!

Kee Hyun Kim's picture

 Kee Hyun (Andy) Kim 

Ban on trans-fat!

I decided to start my search on web paper topic by looking through the possible suggestion posted by professor Grobstein on the serendip forum. This is when I pondered upon “Is Nutrition Science Not Really Science?” Although the blog entrée was about reliability and credibility of nutrition science, I was more interested by the example it gave in its introduction paragraph.(1) The author states that he hopes to slow the ban trans-fat movement and this immediately sparked my interest. ‘Why would anybody want to slow the ban on trans-fat?’ Although I would not consider myself an expert in nutrition nor biology, I always had a firm belief that trans-fat was an extremely detrimental substance to one’s body and was therefore something to be avoided at all cost. After all, wasn’t that the reason why so many food products proudly display that they contain 0 trans-fat and therefore are healthier choices compared to ones that have trans-fat? After all, even the dining center at Haverford has huge signs both in the entrance and within displaying that they are a trans-fat free zone. As a result, I took without a doubt that trans-fat was an extremely hazardous substance to human well being. After conducting the initial inquiry, I realized how little I knew about trans-fat and its effect on humans. I simply took the story of others surrounding me without conducting even a basic research regarding the topic. After all, why would all of these major food corporations and even the dining center be so vigilant in rooting out trans-fat if it wasn’t so detrimental to human health?            


So what exactly is trans-fat? Trans-fat is one of the four different kinds of fat. (7)Although it can be found in small quantities in nature, trans-fats are predominantly made by partial hydrogenation process of oil. The partial hydrogenation process merely changes the composition of the fatty acid by twisting the acid so that the hydrogen atoms end up on the opposite side of the chain from each other. First developed in the early 20th century, trans-fat became increasingly popular compared to their non-trans counterpart for the following reasons. First they were much more economical; the partial hydrogenation process stabilizes the oil and makes it more solid. This process increases the life span of the oil, which allows the use of cheaper oils such as fish oil to be used and also increases the fry life for cooking oils. (5)  Also, when food is cooked with trans fat, it has a more appealing texture than ones cooked with non trans fat (5), this is why French fries in New York, where trans fat is outlawed tastes different from other areas where trans fat is still used. Last but not the least, until the late 80’s and early 90’s, trans-fat was considered a healthier alternative to saturated fat such as butter. A respectable organization such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, vigorously campaigned to replace saturated fat with trans-fat as late as 1987. (7) As a result, by the early 90’s trans-fat was widely used among both in households and food industry.       I was curious how such a popular entity became the center of a public out lash and was able to find out the reason with the help of the internet. The major reason why trans-fat became so unpopular is due to its effect on our cholesterol level and our overall health. There are two types of cholesterols in our body; LDL is the bad cholesterol which not only causes buildup and blockage in the arteries but also causes insulin resistance and type two diabetes. HDL is the good cholesterol which carries cholesterol inside your body to your liver to be eliminated. (5) It is estimated that an increase in the HDL by one milligram will decrease the risk of cardiovascular failure by two to three percent and that if one has sixty milligrams or higher level of HDL will significantly reduce the risk of heart failures and diseases. (5) Therefore, it is not hard to see the need to keep HDL as high as possible while keeping LDL at a minimum.         


Proponents of banning trans-fat argue that trans-fat causes the level of HDL to decrease while causing a surge in the level of LDL. As a result, consumption of trans-fat poses a significant threat to our cardiovascular system and our general health. Studies show that a two percent increase in energy intake from trans-fat results in an astounding twenty three percent increase in heart related diseases. (5) In average, people in the US consume five grams of trans-fat daily and studies show that if trans-fat consumption is cut to zero, there will be a twenty five percent decrease in the level of heart disease and that up to 240,000 deaths can be prevented. (4) Such evidence convinced me that the crusade against trans-fat was a good story, however, there is no story that holds absolute truth and I wanted to hear the opinions of those who showed concern in this move toward banning trans-fat. 


The opponents to such a blanket ban against trans-fat argue that doing so can actually bring more harm than benefit to the society. Although they agree with the proponents of the ban that trans-fat will have a negative impact on one’s cholesterol and overall health, applying a zero tolerance policy is simply not beneficial to anybody and show concern that rational science has been hijacked by scare tactics, and criticize that the proponents are taking advantage the naive ness of ordinary people and using trans-fat as a scapegoat to a far more complex issue. Saturated fat, which will be the predominant substitute for trans-fat, they argue, is as equally as bad as trans-fat. They do agree that unlike saturate fat, trans-fat will increase the level of LDL. The American council on science and Health, however, argues that the effect of this is so miniscule that it cannot justify such a blanket ban. The FDA predicted that the effect of this increase in LDL will cause 600 cases of heart diseases and 240 deaths (4), still a significant number but nowhere near the 240,000 death figure given by proponents of this ban.            



After conducting research regarding trans-fat, I have learned various things and realized that it is not a black and white issue that I thought it to be. Yes it is true that trans-fat is a harmful substance to humans and there is no doubt that excessive consumption of this fatty acid will have a detrimental effect on ones health. However, I don’t think that such a blanket ban blaming everything on trans-fat is a productive public policy that will be beneficial to the community’s health; I believe doing so will create loopholes through which other important factors of health will go unnoticed such as saturated fat. This concern of mine is deepened by the fact that many respective organizations such as American council of science and health and experts such as Dr. Kritchevsy are showing concern over this matter. Although I cannot say I know enough, I feel that scientist need to become more involved regarding the issue of trans-fat and more in-depth research need to be done before applying such a zero tolerance policy.  



1), Is Nutrition Science Not Really Science? John Tierney.

2), The panic du Jour: trans fats in foods, Gina Kolata

3) Meister, Kathleen. Trans fatty acids and heart disease. New York: American council on science and Health, 2006

4) , Trans fats: Anatomy of a scare, Elizabeth M. Whelan

5), About Trans Fat, Ban trans-fat

6), Ban Trans fat in 2007, Michael Dansinger

7), trans-fat, Wikipedia      





Health Seeker's picture

blanket ban on trans fat

I think the blanket ban on trans fat has some merit but may not be totally justified in the long run if saturated fat can be shown to also pose to be equally or little more unhealthy to Americans. There has to be a balance and not an all-ban on any particular kind of fat.