The Demise of Artificial Trans Fat: A History of a Public Health Achievement

Original Scholarship Public health

Policy Points:

  • This article describes a strategic combination of research, advocacy, corporate campaigns, communications, grassroots mobilization, legislation, regulatory actions, and litigation against companies and government to secure a national policy to remove artificial trans fat from the US food system.
  • Sharing lessons we learned can help inform policymakers, academics, policy practitioners, and students across disciplines. Some of our lessons are that system change means that all consumers benefit without the need for individual behavior change; research can both identify opportunities to improve health and support policy adoption; policy efforts can serve as public education campaigns; policy campaigns can drive marketplace changes; and engaging forward-thinking companies can diffuse opposition to passing a policy.

Context: For many decades, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (PHO), the primary source of artificial trans fat in the American diet, was used widely in processed and restaurant foods. In the early 1990s, studies linked the consumption of artificial trans fat with heart disease. This article details how research and advocacy led to eliminating artificial trans fat from the US food supply.

Methods: We synthesized published studies of the health impact of trans fat, the legislative history of state and local trans fat bills, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulatory docket on trans fat labeling and its declaration that PHOs are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), and our own files, which included strategy documents, notes from meetings with the FDA staff, correspondence between advocates and the FDA, fact sheets, press releases, news clips, and other materials.

Findings: This history of trans fat provides insights into policy strategy and advocacy best practices that resulted in the removal of trans fat from food in the United States, preventing an estimated 50,000 premature deaths a year. The lessons we learned are that system change benefits all consumers without the need for individual behavior change; research can both identify opportunities to improve health through policy and support policy adoption; policy campaigns can serve as public education campaigns; policy can drive changes to products and the marketplace; and engaging forward-thinking companies can help diffuse opposition to passing a policy. Securing this policy required the persistence of scientists and health advocates in first discovering the risks and then using the science to secure policies to mitigate the identified harm.

Conclusions: An understanding of the tactics used to help attain the targeted policies and how challenges were addressed (such as through communications, leveraging an expanding research base and expert reports, showing that a national policy was feasible through voluntary corporate changes and state and local policy, and litigation against companies and government agencies) may provide a model for scientists, students, advocates, and policymakers. We hope this account will inform efforts to address other public health challenges, such as the current threats of excessive exposure to sodium and added sugars, which persist in the US food system.

Keywords: health policy, nutritional sciences, public health, history.

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Citation:
Wootan MG, Amico A, Jacobson MF, Leung C, Willet W. The Demise of Artificial Trans Fat: A History of a Public Health Achievement. Milbank Q. 2021;99(3):746-770. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0009.12515