Will Sugar Be The FDA's Next Target?

Nov 18, 2013

The Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to further reduce trans fats in processed foods — a move that would require food companies to prove hydrogenated oils harmless before using them in products.

These days, most consumers consider this a good thing, but trans fats have historically been championed as a healthier alternative to butter and lard. It wasn’t until the 1990s that studies began to link trans fats to heart attacks and disease.

The Atlantic’s senior editor, Corby Kummer, joins Here & Nows Robin Young to discuss why it took the FDA so long to admit the risks of trans fats, and what it may deem unsafe next.


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And now that the FDA is moving to remove trans fats from the generally safe-to-eat list, what are the ramifications? Trans fats weren't always an agreed upon evil. Crisco once called its shortening and easy to digest health food while butter was lumped with lard in the unhealthy category. Fast forward to the 1990s, studies now linked trans fats like Crisco to higher risks of heart attack. And we've witnessed a slow progression away from them, but accent on the word slow.

So food writer Corby Kummer is wondering, it may take a while but will soda be next? Corby is a senior editor and food writer for The Atlantic. He joins us in the studio. Welcome.

CORBY KUMMER: Thank you.

YOUNG: And remind us - I know we've been talking about them in the last couple of weeks, but trans fats, this isn't a ban on them. What exactly is it?

KUMMER: It's removing it from the generally recognized as safe list. And when the FDA does that, any company can petition it to include them. But they have to get this waiver in what amounts to a ban. It's the closing of a loophole. For a while it's been allowed to call something trans-fat free if it had 0.5 percent per serving of trans fats. So that allowed companies that wanted to use it for texture they give French fries, baked goods, fried chicken, doughnuts, they could use a tiny little bit. Most companies had eliminated it but some hadn't. So this encourages everyone, get rid of it entirely.

YOUNG: Or what?

KUMMER: Or you have to - or you get fined or you have to petition to be able to use it and say convincingly, this is not going to pose any public health risk.

YOUNG: Well, as we said, they were once very much in fashion and then communities started banning them. New York City did. The town of Brookline, here in Massachusetts, where we are, banned them in 2007. But what's been the reaction to the FDA - not, again, ban but restriction? I missed this. There was a - on the one side, a New York Post - a tabloid in New York, a New York Post cover...

KUMMER: It said fatwa.


KUMMER: So the idea is, how dare you be this nanny state that's telling us what to eat, what not to eat. You know, trans fats have been on labels. If people want to avoid it, let them avoid it. But the public health argument - and Dr. Thomas Frieden, who's now the head of the Centers for Disease Control, led the charge into 2006 for a ban that went into effect in 2007 - is people don't read labels. The idea is make the environment safer, don't have them be able to go into any kind of fast food place or store and buy something that is going to be demonstratively bad for their health. Take it out.

YOUNG: Well - and that brings us to the other side of the response and that's Marion Nestle, the food writer who - actually, she talked to us about trans fats a while back and told the New York Times the FDA is back. What does she mean? I mean, tell us more about what that - what's in that statement.

KUMMER: I think that what would be behind it - and although we're very close friends, I haven't asked her, hey, what do you mean by that? I think what she means is, it's good to have a regulatory agency with teeth that doesn't seemed to be entirely afraid of the industry or entirely afraid of what political reaction will be. For example, derisive fatwa headlines in the New York Post or Mayor Bloomberg dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire on bus shelters, when he tried to limit the portion size of sodas that were sold in restaurants and movie theaters.

YOUNG: Well, you mentioned sodas and Mayor Bloomberg's campaign to ban these huge Gulps, the extra Gulp things. It's a reminder that when we look at the history of trans fats, it's not crazy to think that sodas might some day be banned.

KUMMER: No. And here is why. I think it's going to be a model for the way soda consumption can be limited in the public, which we certainly need to do. First of all, I have to say that trans fats were proven to be harmful at any level. It took a long time for scientific consensus to build. And at the beginning, the industry mercilessly exploited any trace of ambiguity in the science, which they have been trying to do with sugar and sodas for a long time. Ambiguity is the friend to industry. But eventually ambiguity just faded. The Institute of Medicine, every doctor, everybody said it is unsafe at any level. Sugar is not unsafe at any level. It's safe at many levels. I see in this very studio a half consumed bottle of soda.

YOUNG: What? What? Where? Who would...

KUMMER: Robin, I have no idea. Who could have left it there?

YOUNG: Get that out of here.

KUMMER: However, some people enjoy soda. They should be allowed to enjoy soda. Nobody is telling them not to enjoy soda. But groups like Center for the Science and - Centers for Science in the Public Interest and Harvard School of Public Health led by Walt Willett, who long ago led the charge against trans fats, are saying, FDA, it's time for you to find safe levels of added sugars in drinks.

YOUNG: Look, we talked to a doctor on this program a while back about childhood obesity. And he said the number one thing to do to attack obesity in America is to get rid of soda vending machines in schools to cut back on soda. As you say, sugar can be had in moderation. But soda and lots of soda, there's no question that that's not healthy.

KUMMER: Right. And what I think is the scientific consensus is going to build so that it's really irrefutable and there's nothing industry can do. Industry is very smart. They know what's coming. And so what they're doing while lobbying against every kind of regulation that could possibly restrict the amounts of sugar - I mean, high fructose corn syrup but it's all sugar, so it's all forms of sugar - in sodas is they're formulating dozens and dozens of different kinds of beverages with lower amounts of sugar. What advocates like CSPI, Centers for Science in the Public Interest, would really like is much less sugar in every drink.

So if the FDA, for example, said, oh, sure, but we want you to reduce slowly and voluntarily levels to a quarter of what they are now, they think the problem would be solved. Everybody hopes for voluntary compliance. It works up to a certain point.

YOUNG: How long did the campaign to ban trans fats take?

KUMMER: Decades.

YOUNG: Yeah.

KUMMER: It took decades. It took from the early 1970s, really until about 2002, 2003 when big papers in the New England Journal came out with this evidence there are tens of thousands of excess deaths of heart attacks that can be attributed to trans fats. And now with sugar, it's the amount of sugar people - of sweetened drinks that people are drinking. And being able to have a linear relationship between those and obesity and developing diabetes and all the cost of those, that will slowly but surely, I think, have a tidal wave of evidence against it. And there will be some kind of regulation.

YOUNG: In maybe decades.

KUMMER: In maybe decades.

YOUNG: Corby Kummer, a food writer for The Atlantic, thanks so much.

KUMMER: Thank you.


Robin, before we take a break, a quick few numbers noted in today's Los Angeles Times. More than 100,000 students took the AP calculus exams this year.

YOUNG: Mm-hmm. Very hard.

HOBSON: Very hard. I would never want to take them. Test is offered in 59 countries. Eleven people got perfect scores. All 11 were in the United States.

YOUNG: Get out.

HOBSON: And the LA Times found one of them. It's 17-year-old Nathan Chao of Arcadia, California. He says he spent about four hours - that's it - preparing for the test. And to celebrate his perfect score, the Chao family will be going out to eat. Nathan says he's also going to take a day off from studying and maybe watch a movie to celebrate.

YOUNG: Good for him and good news...

HOBSON: Good news...

YOUNG: ...in the education sector.

HOBSON: ...for the United States.

YOUNG: Yeah. Yeah.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.