Mark Bittman is a noted journalist, author and chef. He’s now at UC Berkeley, where he is affiliated with the Berkeley Food Institute and the Graduate School of Journalism. He’s also hosting California Matters, a video series that explores the complex food, agriculture and environmental landscape of California. We’ve included a clip at the end of this piece.

Today, we’re featuring an opinion piece Bittman wrote for the New York Times. Its focus? Trans fats, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is eliminating from foods (in a process that will take three years). The FDA’s acting commissioner, Stephen Ostroff, has said that eliminating trans fats “is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.” Bittman’s take?

Why wait three years? Why not get these heart-stopping products off the shelves now, as we do when food is contaminated with E. coli? If the evidence is that trans fats are more harmful than other fats, and other fats exist, why delay? Protecting Big Food’s profits is the only possible answer.

If you don’t understand the history of partially hydrogenated oils – trans fats – Bittman provides some basic history. They were invented 100 years ago. They quickly became popular – and their use ubiquitous – in the form of margarine and vegetable shortening products, including Crisco. They are used in “thousands of other products.” Partially hydrogenated oils extend product shelf life, which has been good for food manufacturers; they are a mainstay in processed foods. Their use has “supplanted” the use of other products, including butter.

“But partially hydrogenated oils have benefited no one except their manufacturers and the producers of the junk that includes them. And the three-year phaseout means more deaths from people consuming a substance that should have been taken off the market at least a decade ago. (Studies finding that trans fats were worse than animal fats were published in the early 1990s.)”


Replacing partially hydrogenated oils in foods is going to be expensive for food manufacturers as they scramble to reformulate their products.


“…the F.D.A. itself estimates the cost at $6 billion — mainly because trying to mimic their performance is going to be tricky. Tough luck. No one can possibly estimate the profits that these oils have garnered or their damage to the public. The agency’s analysis also estimates that health care and other costs will decline by $140 billion in the next 20 years as a result of declining trans fat consumption.”


One of Bittman’s suggestions? Use butter in cooking and use half-and-half in your coffee instead of creamer. The lament that resonates from this opinion piece? Lost possibility.


“Chronic diseases aside, it’s impossible to estimate how much good eating we’ve missed because misinformed people told us that Crisco is better than lard, margarine is better than butter, partially hydrogenated soybean oil is better than olive oil.”

An opinion piece that’s worth a read. And below? A video that’s worth watching.

Related Links:

Bittman Op-Ed: Let’s make food issues real

Food industry braces for trans fat ban