More than thirty years ago, several food manufacturers with potent economic interests decided to save the then floundering vegetable fat industry. This they did by supporting creating a health issue that would ultimately and greatly promote the sale of their products. In order to use the vegetable fats and oils for the newly emerging fast food restaurant and food services industries, these fats and oils needed to be partially hydrogenated. Partial hydrogenation, which changes the molecular structure of fatty acids, produces substantial levels of trans fatty acids.
The health issue, which purported to show adverse effects from the consumption of the more saturated fats and cholesterol, became a hot media topic, which periodically required some control and direction by the food industry to support the "scientific" research. Gradually the food supply was changed, and today partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are major sources (95%) of the high levels of trans fatty acids found in processed foods in typical U. S. diets.
Although food industry pressure kept the presence and health effects of trans fatty acids a nonissue for several decades, and even managed to exclude them from the food compositional data bases, researchers around the world have recently published a mass of findings that implicate trans fatty acids as causative factors in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, immune disfunction, obesity, low birth weight, and lactation deficits. These current research findings and levels in foods will be reviewed.
Mary G. Enig, the retiring President of the Society, earned a M. S. in Nutritional Sciences in 1980 and a Ph.D in Nutritional Sciences in 1984 at the University of Maryland at College Park and spent more than a decade performing trans fatty acid research. She produced the first comprehensive analysis of the trans fatty acid levels in U. S. foods. She is currently a consulting nutritionist and the director of the Nutritional Sciences Division of Enig Associates, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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