Amateur Food Activists- Responsible for Trans Fats in Fast Food

Trans Fats –Food Activism Scores a Miss

There have always been food activists in the United States, but sometimes their batty, non-scientific approach has lead to major problems.

One food activist, a crusader against saturated fat, Phil Sokolof, took out full-page articles in newspapers, in the 1980’s, when he found out that McDonald’s French Fries were made using saturated fat. As a result, most fast food places switched to trans fats to fry their spuds. Such was the thinking among lay people at the time, even though there was plenty of evidence that linked trans fats to heart disease, and saturated fat wasn’t the major problem.

In those days to be a food activist, you couldn’t go “viral” on the internet, you had to have a lot of money and take out large newspaper advertisements. Sokolof wasn’t a scientist, and his food activism increased the use of a more dangerous fat than the world could imagine. Food activists who are not scientists continue to operate on the same principle: they work by tossing out fears of food, that basic feeling of disgust. In this case, it changed a whole industry, but lacking a background while Sokolof advocated for better health, it turned out his notions were quite dangerous. Today many food activists operate on the same principal, appeal to the widespread nature of disgust with food, and lacking science background makes claims that are rather batty.

After his full page ads were published, most fast food places converted from frying in saturated fat to the trans fat he was advocating.

Had Sokolof checked with the literature he would have seen  the first evidence of trans fats being linked to heart disease came in 1956, and by 1994 scientists and physicians were widely calling for labeling of trans fats and asking the FDA to “aim to greatly reduce or eliminate the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable fats.”

Even by the time Sokolof had taken out the advertisements the scientific community was well aware of the dangers of trans fats – but that bit of knowledge wasn’t known to Sokolof.  Sokolof was convinced that saturated fat led to his heart attack.

The FDA formally removed partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHO) – the other name for trans fats from the “generally recognized as safe” category in 2013. What is funny about that is some food activists two years later are claiming victory for this, but again – food activists don’t always read the literature, they do like to follow trends. Banning trans fats wasn’t a victory for food activists; this was a victory for the scientists who had been advocating this for years. Most food activists up until recently, were not aware of the dangers, but have become a Johnny-come-lately – claiming victory when they caused the problem.

Food activists today use the same tactic – calling into question certain food products, and some of their fear-mongering causes real problems: the idea that we should not allow golden rice because it is GMO. If golden rice were planted in Southeast Asia it would save millions of children from blindness and death from vitamin A deficiency. Their lack of scientific knowledge and manipulation of food disgust provide an environment that is more toxic than their use of the word toxin.

The world used to love trans fats. The scientists didn’t after about the 1960, but the claims of the evils of saturated fats, combined with a few bad studies led some to the conclusion that trans-fats were the way to go. Stick margarine that resembled butter, shortening, and other trans fats were all the rage in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some doctors recommended that people use margarine (the early ones made were almost entirely made of trans fat) instead of butter or other saturated fats, like bacon grease. But not only were trans fats, and especially margarine made from them, considered healthier than butter, they were much cheaper. Hence, many Americans ate inexpensive trans fats – while the better tasting butter would have made a better choice (doesn’t it always?).

The margarine many grew up eating in the sixties and seventies increases the risk of heart disease. New York City was the first to rule that trans fats should not be in products sold, and now the FDA has followed suits. For years trans fats were widely used, especially in cookies, crackers, muffins, some stick margarine, vegetable shortening, French fries, chicken nuggets, hard taco shells, snack foods, and frozen dinners.

A few stunning facts about trans fats:

  • They remain in the blood stream longer because they are not subject to breakdown from the lipase of the bloodstream.
  • They raise the blood levels of “bad” cholesterol levels, resulting in a higher risk of heart disease.
  • The trans fats are incorporated into cell membranes, especially in the walls of the arteries, where they make the artery more susceptible to injury and inflammation, which leads to plaque build up and cardio-vascular disease

Some trans fats are found in nature—in the stomachs of beef, sheep, goats, and deer, albeit in small amounts, less than 0.5 grams per serving. This led the FDA to allow those packages to be labeled as “0 grams of trans fat.” Beware that if “partially hydrogenated oil” is listed on the ingredients, that product contains trans fats that have been placed into the food – and even small amounts can become significant in the human body.

Willett WC, Ascherio A. Trans fatty acids: are the effects only marginal?American Journal of Public Health. 1994;84(5):722-724.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, a renowned weight loss surgeon, is a leading advocate of culinary medicine. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit