California's Trans Fat Law Set Stage for Pending National Ban on the 'Anti-Food'

by David Gorn, California Healthline Sacramento Bureau

Image from Shutterstock

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FDA this month issued a 60-day call for comment on a new policy to ban a major source of trans fat from American foods.

The proposal to stop the use of partially hydrogenated oil comes five years after California lawmakers passed a partial ban on the substance. California's 2008 law was a big step toward fueling the current administrative drive to ban trans fat, according to Mark Dressner, president of the California Academy of Family Physicians, one of the co-sponsors of the 2008 bill.

"It's the first step toward what's happening now, banning it from all foods," Dressner said.

The California law did not ban all forms of trans fat, but limited use of the substance in restaurants and some food-preparation facilities.

"You have to look at what you can control within your own state," Dressner said. "We weren't going to be able to stop packaged foods from coming here."

Patrons in restaurants don't really have a say about whether trans fat goes into the food, he said, and couldn't choose to exclude them.

Movement Against Trans Fat Growing

California's law regulating use of trans fats does not mean California is completely free of trans fat, said Beatrice Golomb, a professor and researcher at UC-San Diego School of Medicine.

"There are still plenty of trans fats you can find in California," she said. She said trans fats can be found in microwaveable popcorn, frozen pizza and margarine.  

"We've linked trans fats to adverse behavior and to weight gain as well -- even adjusting for the same calorie content. It's a pro-inflammatory, kids have worse cognitive performance, there's a whole host of things," Golomb said.

Partially hydrogenated oils form when hydrogen is injected into oils to make solid fat. Golomb said it's the substance that shapes margarine into a bar, but it has no nutritional value.

"These [manufactured] trans fats don't occur in nature," Golomb said. "It's an anti-food."

The preliminary decision by FDA is that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer "generally recognized as safe."

Studies have linked trans fats to diabetes, obesity, infertility, heart disease and some kinds of cancer. It has been shown to increase cholesterol and reduce so-called good cholesterol. One study linked it to negatively affecting behavior.

The newest study, Golomb said, reveals trans fat as an obesogen, a compound that can disrupt the function of lipid metabolism, which can slow the body's ability to break down fat.

That study has not yet been published, Golomb said. By the time it's released sometime next year, she hopes it will be a moot issue.

"Our data in adults and children show higher body mass [with consumption of trans fats]," Golomb said. "There has been a lot of attention on childhood obesity, and these trans fats are in so many things they eat -- frozen pizza, baked goods, snack goods, fast foods, things that may be high in these trans fats.

"We are hoping this won't create even a ripple of attention," Golomb said, because she hopes the national ban will be in effect at that point.

Effects of the Ban in California

According to Dressner, two-thirds of Californians are considered overweight. The only good news, he said, is that efforts to curb childhood obesity have borne some low-calorie fruit. Obesity rates among youngsters in California have declined slightly in recent years -- though a recent CDC report pointed out that California still leads the nation in obesity among low-income preschoolers, at 17%.

Dressner said the push to outlaw trans fats in fast-food restaurants may have helped school-age children shed some poundage.

"I think it did help somewhat," he said. But the primary obstacle to a healthful diet, Dressner added, is at the grocery store.

"I used to run a diabetes group, and one time rather than meeting in the office, we met in the grocery store," Dressner said. "You could see where you want to be in a grocery store is at the perimeter -- where the vegetables, fruits, meats are. You want to avoid the middle aisles, where all the packaged foods are."

The Department of Public Health is working to put together a new obesity plan for California. Dressner said he will be among the stakeholders to contribute to that project.

"The first meeting will be in January and will combine local and statewide efforts so that we have a movement in California to look at nutrition, movement and obesity," Dressner said.

Obesity and food choices are individual, Dressner said, but in this case Californians need intervention, he said.

"Sometimes we can't control ourselves so it's good the government is helping us do that," Dressner said.


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