Food Police Group Pushed for Trans Fats, Now Take Credit for Possible Ban

Networks ignore CSPI’s 1980s promotion of trans fats that led to widespread usage.

Trans fats may soon be banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But why were they there to begin with? The networks haven’t been reporting that trans fats became popular because of a food police group’s crusade to get rid of saturated fats.

In the 1980s, the pro-regulation food activists at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) campaigned to get polyunsaturated fats out of food – and suggested trans fats as a viable alternative.

Out of nine stories mentioning the potential ban on the morning and evening shows of ABC, CBS and NBC, the networks ignored the connection between CSPI and the presence of trans fats in food.

Yet, CPSI proudly took credit for the FDA’s moves against trans fats. Michael Jacobsen, executive director of CSPI, called them a “uniquely powerful promoter of heart disease.” But in 1988, CSPI published a book entitled “Saturated Fat Attack,” in which they argued against companies’ use of saturated and polyunsaturated fats. When companies eventually capitulated, they replaced these fats with trans fats. Before this, trans fats did not have the presence in foods that they do today.

CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter on March 1, 1988, proudly proclaimed that “[d]espite the rumors, there is little good evidence that trans fats cause any more harm than other fats.”

The newsletter continued to promote trans fats rather than saturated ones. They said, “In rat studies, trans fats appear safe. Animals absorb them just as well as they absorb other fats and oils. And rats fed high levels of trans fats for 46 generations lived as long as other rats, reproduced as well, and appeared normal.”

CSPI even criticized claims that trans fats increase cholesterol saying, “Although some human studies suggest that trans fats do raise blood cholesterol, most of these had serious flaws. Several for example, used an unusual fat with two trans groups. This fat is not present to a significant extent in commercial margarines or oils.”

The newsletter backed up its claims with a study by Mary Enig, PhD., and her colleagues from the University of Maryland, which concluded that trans fats could actually be beneficial. “The trans fats in vegetable fats, suggested the scientists, could best account for the ‘significant positive correlation’ with cancer rates” according to the article.

Enig has since referred to CSPI as “the most revisionist of them all.” In a quarterly magazine for the Weston A. Price Foundation published, on Jan. 6, 2003, Enig pointed out that before 1990, CSPI defended trans fats and even helped lead to their prominence in the food supply. “After six years of public pressure--including full-page newspaper ads placed by Nebraska millionaire and cholesterol-crusader Phil Sokolof--the industry finally relented in 1990. But instead of switching to vegetable oil for frying, CSPI's research shows, the companies opted for hydrogenated shortenings, which have a longer shelf life and can be used longer in deep-fat fryers," Enig wrote.

The MRC's Business and Media Institute found that since the potential ban was first announced on Nov. 7,  there were nine mentions of it on the morning and evening shows of ABC, CBS and NBC. None of these mentioned CSPI’s role in a possible ban, or their earlier promotion of trans fats to replace saturated fats.

CSPI has a long history of attacking any food it comes across. The group has warned about the dangers of dozens of foods in past years including water, milk, bread, eggs and many others in addition to pushing a pro-regulation and taxation agenda. But the news media eat up CSPI’s scary warnings time and again while rarely examining their extreme food views.

— Mike Ciandella is Research Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Mike Ciandella on Twitter.