In 2015, some 50 years after concerns were first raised about a possible link between trans fats and heart attacks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of trans fats in processed foods, are no longer “generally recognized as safe” in human food. This action is expected to prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks annually. Multiply that by 50 years.
Trans fats entered the food supply in the early 1900s as Crisco, short for “crystallized cottonseed oil.” For the Jewish community, its revolutionary attraction was that it was pareve; and the Kosher baked goods industry quickly realized its potential for turning traditionally dairy dishes into pareve ones that could be served at meat meals.
Crisco was invented in the late 1800s by William Procter and James Gamble. They sought an inexpensive fat to replace tallow, the raw material for their candle- and soap-making businesses. By 1905 they owned eight cottonseed mills, and the knowledge to convert liquid cottonseed oil to a solid. With the candle market shrinking, they made a startling decision, in retrospect, to market Crisco® as food. Cheap and with an unnaturally long shelf life, Crisco quickly became a staple in homes and factories. In the kitchen, trans fats worked like a charm. But their deleterious effect on human health would remain unknown for decades to come.
Today, trans fats are found in all manner of processed foods — cookies, crackers, cakes, pies, frosting, shortening, potato chips, microwave popcorn, French fries, fried chicken, doughnuts, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, frozen pizzas, stick margarine and non-dairy coffee whiteners. This list will shrink, as processed food manufacturers have been granted three years to reformulate products or request an exemption.
Many immigrant communities, eager to adopt American customs, became lucrative markets for processed food manufacturers. For Ashkenazi Jews and others, margarine, shortening, and, later, non-dairy coffee whiteners rapidly replaced traditional fats. To attract the Jewish market, Procter & Gamble solicited endorsements from rabbis and other community leaders. One rabbi was quoted as having said that “The Hebrew Race has been waiting for 4,000 years for Crisco.” Oy vey.
Whereas Crisco is no longer made from cottonseed oil, it still contains trans fats, and cottonseed oil continues to predominate in many other pareve products designed for the kosher kitchen. Cottonseed oil is also designated as pesadik, or kosher for Passover. But pareve and pesadik are categories of foods. Is cottonseed oil a food?
From a scientific standpoint, cottonseed oil is highly stable chemically. It is not easily broken down by heat, oxygen or time. Stability confers a longer shelf life, which raises profitability. Cottonseed oil owes its stability in part to its exceedingly high omega-6 fatty acid content. Whereas small amounts of omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for good health, the exceedingly high levels in cottonseed oil are, like trans fats, a likely contributor to Western society’s epidemic of chronic inflammatory diseases. Cottonseed oil entered the food supply inadvertently, at a time when scientists understood virtually nothing about its pro-inflammatory properties.
The fact that cotton is neither grain nor chametz makes it a neutral raw material for the kosher processed food industry. The fact that no rabbinic rulings exist to govern cotton-derived products as food poses an interesting quandary: Might this be evidence that cottonseed oil is not, and never has been, food?
How then, are we to replace manufactured calories with the real foods we once ate? Instead of margarine, we can learn to bake with pareve fats like olive, coconut, avocado, peanut or sesame oil. We can try coconut, almond, soy or rice milk in tea and coffee. Like our ancestors, we can take the opportunity to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables on Passover.
If present trends continue, and there is no reason to suspect otherwise, fully half of all Medicare recipients are expected to carry a diagnosis of diabetes in the coming decades. Responsibility for bearing the cost of the diabetes and obesity epidemics lies with each and every one of us. Consumers have the power to influence transformation of the food supply to a greater extent than they realize. You vote every time you shop, every time a bar code passes a scanner. Why wait any longer when you can stop buying trans fats now? Why wait for the FDA to initiate its evaluation of the evidence against cottonseed oil when you can start today to decline to purchase products made with it?
Roxanne Sukol is a physician in the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Her professional interests include the prevention of diabetes and obesity, and patient:provider communication. Dr. Sukol authors the blog Your Health is on Your Plate