Twilight of Trans Fat: The FDA Wants to Take Your Margarine Away

Photograph by Renee Comet/Getty Images

The days of stick margarine may be numbered. The not-butter, once thought a healthier alternative, has fallen out of favor because it contains high levels of trans fats, which turned out to be worse for your health than the bad stuff in butter.

The Food and Drug Administration today started the process to effectively ban trans fats from manufactured foods. Many foodmakers have already lowered their reliance on trans fats as shoppers sought healthier choices, but the FDA identified some products that continue the trans fat tradition: cookies, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, shortenings, and margarines. The regulatory agency began requiring manufacturers to break out trans fats on nutritional labels in 2006.

Want a refresher on Margarine 101? It’s just vegetable oil with hydrogen added, as the Cleveland Clinic explains: “Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, making the oil more solid and less likely to spoil. This process is called hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation and allows stick margarine to be firm at room temperature.”

Scientists have accumulated evidence linking trans fats to heart disease over the past three decades. Among other things, eating trans fats increases the bad type of cholesterol, known as LDL. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that reducing American’s consumption of trans fats could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.

Even the food lobby isn’t protesting. “Since 2005, food manufacturers have voluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their food products by over 73 percent,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a news release. ”We look forward to working with the FDA to better understand their concerns and how our industry can better serve consumers.”

Some trans fats naturally occur in meat and dairy products in small amounts, and these wouldn’t be affected by the FDA’s proposed ban. New York City barred restaurants from using artificial trans fats starting in 2007, a move credited with making fast-food meals healthier. The FDA’s rule would do the same for supermarkets’ junk-food aisles—and lock margarine in its tub for good.

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