On November 7, the FDA proposed a ban of nearly all trans fat from foods. Based on data it has collected since 2009, when President Obama took office, the agency will revoke the classification of partially hydrogenated oils as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). Partial hydrogenation, a process conducted in large steel vats at high temperature and pressure over a Raney nickel catalyst, breaks down and converts natural vegetable oils into a cheap synthetic goop with an appearance similar to lard that conveniently congeals at room temperature and can be reheated many times. Pioneered in 1911, this chemical product has the appearance of an edible foodstuff, but some of the fat it contains has been chemically scrambled into the trans isomer, normally only encountered in trace amounts, which takes a heavy toll on human health.
In the U.S. alone, the estimated yearly number of deaths from trans fat intake is from 30,000 to 100,000. In a seven-year interval, the death rate for the 20% of people eating the most trans fat was nearly double those of the 20% eating the least. According to the World Health Organization, trans fat health effects include "increased risk of cardiovascular disease, infertility, endometriosis, gallstones, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and some cancers." There also appears to be some protective effect from the polyunsaturated fatty acids present in the natural vegetable oils that is lost when they are replaced by their partially hydrogenated analogues. Countries that have banned trans fats, beginning with Denmark in 2004, are already experiencing mortality reductions as their rates of cardiovascular disease plummet.
Americans have good reason to be suspicious of regulation, but few libertarians would want a restaurant meal that turns out to be peppered with melamine and fried up in used transformer oil. It is time for us to think of partially hydrogenated oil in just the same way — as an industrial product that cannot ethically be passed off as food. A patchwork of mandatory labelling, consumer choice, class action lawsuits, and local ordinances have succeeded in lowering the average daily intake from five grams daily in 2003 to just one today. If the risks have decreased in proportion, trans fats are now killing perhaps as few as 6,000 Americans are now dying each year. That still means that the FDA's action today can prevent more deaths in one year than the 4,486 American soldiers lost in nine years of war in Iraq. Any timetable for phasing out trans fats should reflect that sense of urgency.