Ah yes the trans fat. Now reviled as one of the most unhealthy substances a human can eat, trans fats were once presented as the epitome of clean eating in the United States. They were cheap to manufacture, easy to cook with and marketed with aplomb.
Today we look at the fascinating history of the unhealthiest of fats.
Butter in the time before trans fats
The 1800s in the United States were a time when families in agricultural areas would cook their meals with either butter or beef fats. Simpler times when butter was taken either straight from the family cow or bought from the local dairy farmer. Indeed it was a staple of the American diet in many cities.
Unsurprisingly however, churning your own butter was a time consuming process, something that was reflected in the price. As the 1800s rolled onward the price of butter began to rise as more and more people sought out ready made products, as opposed to making it themselves. This wasn’t just a US problem however. Europe too was suffering. In France’s Second Republic, the Emperor Napoleon III went so far as to offer a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory alternative for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes.
In 1860 Napoleon’s call was answered in the form of oleomargarine. the first man made trans fat, derived from beef fat. By 1871 oleomargarine was rolled out in US stores and for one brief moment American consumers had found the elusive alternative to butter.
Initially dubbed as the ‘poor man’s butter’, oleomargarine’s popularity in the US wasn’t to last. In 1878, Scientific American published an article reporting that government scientists had found animal tissue in samples of oleomargarine, alongside evidence that raw fat used in its production was “probably that of a diseased animal.” Oleomargarine fell from grace.
The search continued…
Not everyone had become discouraged from the oleomargarine fiasco and some continued to search for an alternative. One such man was Paul Sabatier, who in the 1890s developed a hydrogenation process with real potential. By adding hydrogen atoms to saturated fats, Sabatier was able to produce partially unsaturated fats. This process gave products a studier texture. Simply put, Sabatier’s discovery is the reason margarine is solid at room temperature and not liquid. It is also made butter alternatives easier to spread than than the real thing and critically for producers, Sabatier’s hydrogenation process extended the shelf live of products, reducing the need for refrigeration. Finally it helped foods taste amazing, which probably helped his cause.
Sabatier wasn’t the only scientist on the case however and in 1902, German chemist Wilhelm Normann patented his own form of hydrogenation, which dealt with partially hardening liquid oils. The combined discoveries of both men soon set off a frenzy in the US market, beginning with Crisco.
The Crisco Empire
In 1909, Procter & Gamble acquired the US rights to the Normann patent and by 1911 Crisco had debuted in US stores with the simple message that it was all natural. Unlike their rivals who advocated frying foods in beef fat or butter, Crisco was marketed as more earthy. The initial slogan for the product was clear about this: “It’s all vegetable! It’s digestible!”Even worse, depending on your viewpoint, Crisco could also be classified as kosher which led to the slightly unsavory slogan that, “the Hebrew Race has been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco!”
Both Crisco and Margarine soon began to appear in US kitchens. They were cheaper, lasted longer and often came with free cookbooks, which all called for the use of Crisco or margarine. Funny that.
A Free Crisco Recipe
It wasn’t until the Second World War however that the Trans Fat empire really kicked into overdrive. From 1939 to 1945, butter production was curtailed in the United States with the introduction of food rationing. As consumers still needed something to cook with, margarine became the obvious choice. Butter’s popularity was beginning to fade.
Matters worsened in the post war era when the American Heart Association decried in the 1950s that citizens needed to reduce their saturated fat intake to reduce the chances of heart disease. Backed by the AHA, lobby groups emerged calling for the reduction of saturated fats in foods and restaurants. When Time Magazine released an article in 1961 railing against the danger of saturated fats such as butter or lard, margarine became widely accepted as a healthy alternative to dangerous saturated fats.
But Aren’t Trans fats Dangerous?
Yes but it was a while before people accepted that.
As early as the 1940s, Dr Catherine Kousmine was discussing the link between trans fats and certain types of cancer, but for whatever reason (and many will no doubt blame Mr. Ancel Keys), such research fell by the wayside.
Phil Sokolof posing with his anti-saturated fat ads
The 1980s saw the height of the saturated fat witch hunt, with scientists attacking any restaurant who dared to use butter or lard in the cooking process. One such campaigner, Phil Sokolof (pictured above), took out full page ads in major US newspapers attacking fast food restaurants for using beef tallow in the cooking process. Fearing a loss in sales, by the end of the 1980s, the majority of US restaurants were using trans fats. A trend that was mirrored in many US households.
Thankfully the end was nearing for trans fats by the beginning of the 1990s as it was during this time that scientists began to revise their claims regarding the health benefits of hydrogenated oils. In 1993, a study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that intake of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils contributed to the risk of having a heart attack. In the same study, researchers postulated that replacing just 2 percent of calories from trans fat with healthy unsaturated fat would decrease the risk of coronary heart disease by about a third. The discovery garnered a vast deal of media attention and helped kick start a debate about trans fats. It was the first strike against trans fats and is now widely regarded as ‘the’ study which helped to change opinions in the US.
Since that time trans fats have become a dirty word, being removed from restaurant chains, junk foods and even foods like margarine. The story isn’t over yet, but the reign of trans fats is well and truly fading in the US.