Your Doughnut Is No Longer Out to Kill You

Hidden heart attacks.

Photographer: Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past decade, Americans have cut their consumption of "partially hydrogenated" solid fats -- also known as trans fats -- by 85 percent, thanks to government-mandated labeling, consumers' preference for more healthful products and changes by food producers. But the 15 percent that remains is far too much. That's why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is right to make good on its promise to ban added trans fats entirely. It's a move that could save thousands of lives.

Trans fats have been popular additives because they're inexpensive, easy to work with (they stay solid at room temperature) and they give baked goods an appealing flaky texture. This is why you still find them in microwave popcorn, cake mixes, sprinkles and foods at some chain restaurants, such as Popeyes' fried chicken and Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits.   

There was a time when trans fats were thought to be less harmful than animal fats -- until the 1980s, when research revealed them to be an artery-clogging menace: They boost LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower HDL ("good") cholesterol.

A total ban is needed for the same reason that lead needs to be banned from paint: The Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences have found that there's no safe level of consumption. The restrictions that the FDA proposed Tuesday could eventually prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths per year, the agency estimates. Residents of California, which banned trans fats at restaurants in 2011, and of New York City, which did the same in 2006 (when Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, was mayor), are better off for it.

The new regime will forbid foodmakers from adding any artificially hydrogenated oils. (Companies will have three years to phase them out.) Products with naturally occurring trans fat -- cows have some in their stomachs as a digestive aid, so milk and meat have tiny amounts -- will remain on shelves. And companies will be able to petition the FDA for individual exceptions. The agency will need to be very skeptical of these requests. And consumers should keep a careful eye on the nutrition labels of foods that used to contain trans fats, as food companies may be tempted to substitute butter, lard or other additives that are unhealthful in their own right.

This kind of protection for cardiovascular health would be worth a little loss of taste in the foods that have been processed with trans fats. But judging from the experience of companies from McDonald's to Quaker Oats that have already stopped using them, consumers probably won't even notice.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.