This past summer, I took on the truly gruesome task of steaming off wallpaper (three layers of it, mind you) and repainting my breakfast nook. My house was built in 1928 and I realized, about halfway through layer number two, that the paint underneath was almost certainly lead based. My easy, two-day, home improvement project resulted in minor panic, a $45 respirator and a consultation from the Alameda Lead Prevention Project. After all the hassle, I wondered why lead was ever put into paint in the first place.
“Well, it increased the durability of the paint and resulted in a beautiful finish. We just didn’t know about the terrible health consequences,” answered the consultation representative.
With the recent banning of trans fats in New York City’s restaurants, many health officials made the lead/trans fat analogy. Just as lead was added to paint to improve paint’s life and luster, trans fats are added to foods to preserve shelf life and increase “flavor stability.” Likewise, the health consequences of trans fats may have been unknown when they were first introduced into our diet, but we now know they are strongly linked to coronary heart disease.
Saturated fat has been linked to heart disease as well, but not all fats are created equal. While saturated fat is naturally occurring in food products, the majority of trans fat we consume is man-made and doesn’t occur naturally. Trans fat is manufactured by food companies by hydrogenating vegetable oils to make them more solid at room temperature. Although small amounts of trans fats are found naturally in some animal products, most is man-made. The simple way around the addition of trans fats in food is to use non hydrogenated oils in cooking.
“[Trans fats] are artificial, abnormal, not good for us, unnecessary, have no taste, and are easily replaced. So what’s the big deal? People can eat all the fried foods they want—made with non-hydrogenated oils—and never know the difference,” says Dr. Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health  at New York University and author of What to Eat and Food Politics.
As with lead, the most vulnerable may be our children. According to the Food and Drug Administration, who mandated package labeling of trans fat on January 1, 2006, almost three-quarters of our trans fat consumption comes from packaged cookies and crackers, margarine and shortenings, and fried potatoes and chips; items that kids tend to eat a lot of. And although we can check to see if trans fats are in the products we buy, we really have no way of knowing what restaurants put in our food.
Even with the seemingly small changes in food production that would make us trans fat–free, there was resistance to the ban in Manhattan from the “I can do/eat/smoke whatever I want! I am an American!” contingent. But just as with lead, we are not talking about freedom, we are talking abut costs to society for which we all pay the price. Our economy and health care system are already burdened from the massive effects of heart disease. Shouldn’t we welcome measures to curb this burden, especially if we still get to eat our French fries, fried chicken, and cookies?
It may be in the not-too-distant future that California, home to progressive politics, will start to consider its own ban. Getting rid of lead in our paint didn’t happen overnight and neither will getting rid of trans fat. But following in the footsteps of New York will allow us to have our cake and eat it—sans trans fat—too.