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Eat no evil

Science | Federal regulators are on a warpath to rid the 50 states of trans fats

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

Those tasty but evil molecules known as trans fats, lurking in some snacks and margarine sticks, have likely met their inglorious end. On Nov. 7 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed a nationwide ban on trans fat additives in food. Eliminating trans fats, which health experts blame for raising bad cholesterol, would prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease in America each year, the agency claims.

The ban, awaiting a 60-day comment period, is likely a done deal. Public health advocates have been shouting about trans fats for years, and many restaurants and manufacturers have already stopped using them. In fact, the efforts to raise public awareness—including the FDA’s 2006 requirement that nutrition labels announce trans fat content of 0.5 grams or more—have been so successful some might wonder whether a federal ban is even necessary.

Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in beef and some dairy products. Manufacturers create them when they add hydrogen to vegetable oil to solidify it, adding texture, taste, and shelf life to foods. Certain brands of cookies, frozen pizzas, pancake mixes, microwave popcorn, and doughnuts contain trans fat additives.

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Many restaurant chains have already stopped cooking with oils containing trans fats, including McDonald’s, Krispy Kreme, Taco Bell, and KFC. Long John Silver’s has pledged to stop using them by the end of the year. Many manufacturers shun them: Although I’ve never consciously avoided trans fats while grocery shopping, a quick search of my fridge and cabinets turned up only one item containing trans fat: a half-used tub of vegetable spread.

With free-market pressure so effective, why do we need a nationwide ban? Overall, manufacturers have reduced trans fat content in food products by 73 percent since 2005. Those who still use trans fats complain the FDA’s ban would force them to reformulate tried-and-true brand recipes—a possibly difficult and expensive task.

New York City outlawed trans fats in restaurants in 2008. Next, the city took aim at large soft drinks. Knowing the pattern of U.S. regulation, you have to wonder if it will be trans fats today—and sugar, salt, and saturated fat tomorrow.

Power pep talk

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An encouraging word doesn’t just cheer the heart: It apparently increases physical endurance, too. An October study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that young, active men and women coached in “motivational self-talk” (telling themselves things like, “You’re doing well”) performed better in a stationary cycling test than those without such coaching. Asked to cycle to the point of exhaustion, participants endured longer when they engaged in a personal pep talk. —D.J.D.

Blinded by the pill?

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Oral contraceptives have been linked to increased risk of blood clots, benign liver tumors, and heart attacks—and new research suggests they raise the risk of blindness. In a not-yet-published study announced in November, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, and two other institutions found that U.S. women were twice as likely to develop glaucoma, a serious eye disease, if they had used any kind of oral contraceptive for three years or more. Another study published in 2011 had found a smaller link between glaucoma and long-term oral contraceptive use.

It’s possible birth control pills influence the onset of glaucoma by altering estrogen levels. More than 2 million Americans are estimated to suffer from glaucoma, the world’s second leading cause of blindness. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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