Huge news recently broke in the world of nutrition. The World Health Organization announced that it wants to eradicate all trans fats from food around the world by 2023 through a program called REPLACE, which will provide countries with guidance for how to get rid of the artificial cooking fat.
REPLACE stands for review dietary sources, promote use of healthier fats, legislate, assess changes, create awareness and enforce. If you're a conservative or libertarian, the words "legislate" and "enforce" probably send chills down your spine. It does sound pretty Orwellian, a global effort to regulate what every human eats under threat of a penalty not yet determined. Not to mention the potential effect such a coordinated, international regulation would have on the global food market. But before you build a bunker and stock it with gallons of vegetable oil, remember that the WHO can't just come in and make international law, and trans fats certainly aren't the only fats available for food preparation. In addition, trans fats have other uses outside the kitchen such as industrial machine lubrication, so production of the fat wouldn't simply halt. Trans fats can certainly be useful for humans, but one thing they should never be used for is consumption.
While it's certainly worth pushing back against government regulation due to its track record of stifling economic growth, we must also acknowledge that trans fat is a huge problem. Trans fat is produced when vegetable fats undergo an industrial process called hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is commonly used in baked goods; it's also found in margarine and pretty much every snack food in the grocery store. You probably have it in your pantry (if so, throw it away). Other trans fats are soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil and cottonseed oil. (Yep, you read the first one right. If you thought soy alternatives were healthier than dairy, you've been doing yourself a huge disservice).
Today, more people around the world are eating trans fats than ever before as Western culture continues to expand into new territory. This increased adoption of the Western diet by different cultures has played a significant role in the WHO's decision to move forward with the REPLACE initiative. Western civilization produced the wealth and prosperity that makes modern life possible, and its commitment to the inherent dignity and worth of the individual certainly makes its culture worth spreading. However, something not worth spreading is the consumption of trans fats. In fact, some of the biggest problems plaguing Western society today, including heart disease, obesity and depression, all started to increase in prevalence soon after the anti-saturated fat movement began in the 1960s. While correlation doesn't prove causation, it's something to think about.
In the 1960s, it became conventional wisdom that animal fats were unhealthy, and trans fats were toted as healthier alternatives to lard and butter (Today, the body of evidence contradicting this and affirming the health benefits of grass-fed animal fats is robust, yet people still believe egg yolks and butter are unhealthy). Trans fats could also be cheaply made from agricultural byproducts that would otherwise have been thrown away. This, combined with the nutritional wisdom of the intelligentsia, made trans fats "part of a nutritious breakfast," lunch and dinner in America. It is around that same time that rates of obesity, heart disease and depression started to increase in the United States.
A major concern with trans fats that ties them to obesity, heart disease and depression (among a host of other problems) is inflammation, which, if prolonged, wreaks havoc on the human body. Inflammation is an immune response that makes sure an injured area of the body doesn't become infected. That's why, when you get a splinter, the area becomes inflamed. When you eat trans fats, it does to your gut lining what a splinter does to your finger and triggers an inflammation response. When you include trans fats in three meals a day, this inflammation never goes away since you're repeatedly injuring your gut. The physiological response to this is identical to what happens when you're exposed to prolonged stress and trauma, and has been shown to contribute to obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression, even Alzheimer's. Chronic inflammation also decreases your motivation to be active because your body is always trying to heal itself. This gives way to a sedentary lifestyle and further consumption of the trans fats you've come to crave. It's a deadly cycle.
Much more could be said about other reasons trans fats should be avoided like the plague. Their negative health effects are well-documented, but ironically, the benefits of banning them are not. In the early 2000s, artificial trans fats were banned in New York City, and a subsequent study claimed that this significantly reduced heart attacks and strokes. However, there were so many confounding factors to the study that it wouldn't have been accepted in any reputable nutrition journal.
All this to say, trans fats are terrible, but is an attempt to get governments around the world to ban them a good idea? Maybe. Probably not. It could potentially have unforeseen economic impacts, as many government regulations do. On top of that, the 2023 deadline for this worldwide eradication is ambitious to say the least. That's five years from now! At the end of the day, the only trans fats you can control are the ones in your kitchen, and the most beneficial way you can exercise your control of those trans fats is by disposing of them. Who knows, maybe the global population will wake up, causing demand for vegetable oils to plummet and a free-market solution for this problem to arise. But the solution starts with you.