A History of Trans Fat

Updated:Jan 11,2014
Fats - Behind the Trans Fat Label (header)Wondering how trans fat ended up with its own special place on food labels? Most of us grew up eating foods containing trans fat without knowing it was there. Before trans fat was added to labels in 2006, you could only recognize it under its alias, “partially hydrogenated oil,” on the list of ingredients.

Trans fat became popular with consumers and food manufacturers because it acted as a preservative, giving foods a longer shelf life. It also gave foods a more tempting taste and texture.
But there’s a downside to trans fat. We now know that trans fat is harmful to our health. But this knowledge is relatively new. Before 1990, some researchers suspected that partially hydrogenated oils were “bad fats,” but it wasn’t until the 1990s that research began to prove it.
So how was trans fat first introduced into foods? Why did it gain such great popularity, but then develop a bad reputation? And how did it slide its way onto Nutrition Facts labels? Read on to learn more about the slippery saga of trans fat in America.
Fats - History of Trans Fat Pre-1990 CMAPP

The hydrogenation process was first discovered around the turn of the 20th century, making it possible to produce partially hydrogenated fat – often referred to as trans fatty acid or trans fat. And it was the first man-made fat to join our food supply. Many American kitchens were first introduced to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in 1911 with the product Crisco®.

Trans fat gained widespread popularity during World War II, when many people began using margarine and shortening as alternatives to rationed butter.

Fats - Trans Fats History 1890s CMAPP Image
Paul Sabatier develops the hydrogenation process.  He was a French chemist who became a Nobel laureate in 1912.
Fats - Trans Fats History 1902 CMAPP Image

Scientist Wilhelm Normann finds that liquid oils can be hydrogenated to form trans fatty acids. He patents the process.  Trans fat is the first man-made fat to join our food supply.
Fats - Trans Fats History 1911 CMAPP Image
Procter & Gamble introduces Crisco vegetable shortening in grocery stores. Crisco becomes the first of many manufactured food products containing trans fat.
Fats - Trans Fats History 1937 CMAPP Image
World War II begins, and the United States becomes involved at the end of 1941.  As the war progresses, the use of margarine rises sharply because butter is rationed.
Fats - Trans Fats History 1957 CMAPP Image
The American Heart Association first proposes that reducing dietary fats, namely saturated fats found in foods like butter and beef, can reduce the chance of getting heart disease.
Fats - Trans Fats History 1984 CMAPP Image
Consumer advocacy groups campaign against using saturated fat for frying in fast-food restaurants.

In response, most fast-food companies begin using partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fat instead of beef tallow and tropical oils high in saturated fats. 

Fats - History of Trans Fat Post-1990 CMAPP

Numerous research studies were conducted during the 1990s, revealing correlations between trans fatty acids and increased LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and a higher incidence of heart disease.  (Recent studies suggest that trans fat may also play a role in other health problems like diabetes.) Perhaps saturated fats weren’t alone in harming heart health after all.

Around this time nutrition labels became a hotly debated topic. Scientists and food manufacturers argued over whether to require a separate listing of trans fat content on food packages.

Fats - Trans Fats History 1993 CMAPP Image

Following the release of several scientific studies, health advocacy groups call for fast-food restaurants to stop using partially hydrogenated oils in their deep fryers.

Fats - Trans Fats History 1999 CMAPP Image

The U.S. government proposes a law requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat amounts on nutrition labels.  The proposal is not passed as law.

Fats - Trans Fats History 2002 CMAPP Image

The government agrees with researchers for the first time on record: that there is likely no safe level of trans fat and that people should eat as little as possible.

Fats - Trans Fats History 2003 CMAPP Image
Denmark is the first and only country to regulate trans fat on a national basis, putting a very small cap on the amount that food may contain.

Later in 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA) passes a law requiring that trans fat be listed on the Nutrition Facts label on food products; food manufacturers have three years to comply.  Many have reformulated their products to limit trans fat.

Fats - Trans Fats History 2006 CMAPP Image

Trans fat labeling becomes mandatory in the United States. The American Heart Association becomes the first major health organization to specify a daily limit:  less than 1 percent of calories from trans fat.  Later in the year, New York becomes the first U.S. city to pass a regulation limiting trans fat in restaurants.  Multiple cities and states have since proposed similar regulations.
Fats - Trans Fats History 2007 CMAPP Image
To put trans fat into the context of the overall “big fat picture,” and help consumers better understand fats and their impact on health, the American Heart Association launches its “Face the Fats” consumer education campaign.

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