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Not so long ago, it was near impossible to avoid trans fats—more widely known in food ingredient lists as partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats, which were processed to mimic saturated fat, were found in almost all the cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, and potato chips we bought in supermarkets and chain restaurants. But late last year, the Food and Drug Administration declared that trans fats are no longer “generally regarded as safe.” The introduction of any new food product that contains more than trace amounts of trans fats now requires explicit FDA approval.
We foolishly thought that our experiment to improve on Mother Nature’s options for fatty food and replace saturated fat with “healthier” trans fats was a win-win. But trans fats have turned out to carry some of the same health risks as saturated fats, and it has taken an unfortunate amount of time for that to become clear.
Trans fats don’t have to be artificial—some are also found in nature. Bacteria in cows and sheep are known to create trans fats that appear in the milk we drink and the mutton we eat. But for 94 percent of human existence, we consumed small amounts of trans fats. Even after the domestication of cattle, our consumption of natural trans fatty acids did not typically exceed half of 1 percent of daily calorie intake until modern times.