Well, we still love the taste of those golden fresh french fries, perfect pies made with flaky crusts, and crispy pizzas. It’s all delicious, even nostalgic. Yet, if there is any invention that we love, but now need to end our unhealthy relationship with, it’s the artificial trans fats that live in these foods.
Trans fats do not naturally occur in abundance. How did we get them in our food?
Trans fats (i.e., trans-unsaturated fatty acids or trans fatty acids) are produced through fat hydrogenation. This method to harden fat came from inventive work in two parts. The first was work that took place at the end of the 19th century in France. Two scientists, Paul Sabatier and Jean-Baptiste Senderens, found that “unsaturated organic compounds” such as vapor, could be hydrogenated by introducing the catalyst, nickel. They were not successful in hydrogenating liquids and held that it could not be done. The second part was picked up by Wilhelm Normann in 1901, Germany. The chemist worked with liquid oils, applying a multi-step process that included oleic acid in liquid, the nickel catalyst in solid, and hydrogen gas. Normann proved that liquid fats could be hardened. At the time, he worked for the Leprince & Siveke company, to whom the German patent was granted for Process for the Conversion of Unsaturated Fatty Acids or Their Glycerides into Saturated Compounds (141,029) in 1903.
Those familiar with the art recognize the invention of this oleochemical process. Those familiar with the food industry recognize the invention of an opportunity. By 1909, Norman had his first industrial fat-hardening operations in place. That same year, Procter & Gamble purchased the rights to the patent.
However, industrial fat hydrogenation might have been one of those inventions developed before the real need presented itself.
Normann’s process meant that commonly used oils could be stabilized in solid form. For example, applying the hydrogenation process to cottonseed oil created crystallized cottonseed oil, better known as, Crisco®. In 1911, P&G began aggressively marketing this pantry staple for frying and baking. They sold the lard-substitute with a complimentary recipe book, and people ate it up.
One of most popular uses for the trans fatty acids was in margarine, which, by this time, was an alteration of the historically French margarine and used a combination of vegetable oil and animal fat. It was an inexpensive and accessible replacement for straight animal fats in the diet and it spread oh-so-nicely right out of the ice box. It was nice.
Fast-forward to the Great Depression and World War II – when the real need came. Butter was rationed, disappearing, and expensive. Margarine replaced butter for spreading, baking, and frying. Over 40 years, Newmann’s invention evolved into an everyday necessity.
The Problem with the Solution
As early as the 1950s, health experts began to warn of the possible negative impact of artificial trans fats. However, the momentum was unstoppable. Our demand for all things trans-fatty grew and the food and restaurant industries never ceased to satisfy. Industrial fat hydrogenation is a common component in the production of many processed foods and snacks. Fryers filled with oil sizzle millions of lunches every day. The delectable trans fats not only solved the butter problem, but also opened new doors for food science and consumer satisfaction.
But now we know the other problem. The problem created by the solution. Trans fats wreak havoc with our cholesterol levels. The good HDL is low and the bad LDL is high. Trans fat consumption contributes to heart disease, diabetes, chronic inflammation, and more. We all know. But making the change away from this problem is a lot slower than embracing the “solution” was. Hardened fat production was successful within a few years. We have been eating it for over 100 years. Almost 70 years after initial warning signs, we haven’t quite invented ourselves out of this box.
Lawmakers in New York City enacted a policy in 2006 that banned the use of artificial trans fats (specifically, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) from food preparation in city restaurants. They believed that this would improve the overall health of residents, beginning with a reduction of trans fats in the bloodstream. New York was a good sample for this because a relatively high number of people, one in five, eats restaurant-prepared food at least four times a week.
Researchers analyzed participants’ blood samples before the ban was in place and again in 2013-2014. After several years of trans fat-free dining, the study showed that for New Yorkers “trans fat levels plunged by about 57 percent overall… For people who dined out frequently… Levels of the fats declined by about 62 percent”. 
The results of this NYC experiment hold value in the argument for reducing artificial trans fat intake. The city was the first to implement this restriction on a large scale.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded upon New York’s example, taking official action against the unsafe trans fats. In June 2018, the FDA banned trans fats from use in any food sold in US grocery stores or prepared in US restaurants. This is a decision that affects every American. The goal is to reduce the risk of heart disease and improve the state of health for everyone.
Legislation over people’s health choices can be contentious solution. In this case, New York was an interesting laboratory and produced compelling results. After much research, the US and other countries across the globe are taking steps to back away from Wilhelm Normann’s invention. We just need to find a way to reinvent our tastes.
References http://lipidlibrary.aocs.org/History/content.cfm?ItemNumber=39278  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_fat  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisco  https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ban-artificial-trans-fats-nyc-restaurants-appears-be-working?tgt=nr  https://www.cardiovascularbusiness.com/topics/lipids-metabolic/fda-bans-use-artificial-trans-fats-foods
Crisco® is a registered trademark of the J.M. SMUCKER COMPANY.