The Food and Drug Administration proposed measures last week that would all but eliminate artificial trans fats from the U.S. food supply, proposing that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils—the source of trans fats—no longer be “generally recognized as safe.”

The agency’s preliminary the ruling is open to public comment for 60 days.

For the last several years, trans fats have been condemned as a major contributor to heart disease, and while its usage has declined significantly, the ingredient is still part of formulations for such foods as margarine, cake frosting, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza and coffee creamers. According to FDA officials, a total ban on trans fat could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year.

FDA’s proposal was labeled “a rare political victory” by The New York Times.

“This is the final slam dunk on the trans fat issue,” said Barry Popkin, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina.

Why all the furor over trans fats? If they’re so bad, why were they so ubiquitous in food products until very recently?

Trans fats were initially popularized because partially hydrogenated oils—which become solid when the liquid oil is treated with hydrogen gas—were cheaper than animal fats, such as butter. More importantly, they were initially considered to be healthier, and this is where the anti-animal agriculture activists enter the picture.

For decades, self-proclaimed experts, such as Michael Jacobsen at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, railed against saturated fat as the root of all nutritional evil. Jacobsen and his cronies used the meat industry as whipping boys, while trying to make the case that red meat was deadly dangerous and we had to save ourselves from dropping dead of a heart attack by switching from meat to soy, and from butter to margarine.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I attended briefings and press conferences at which Jacobsen and other CSPI staffers preached about the horrors of beef, butter and cheese, which they condemned as the source of artery-clogging saturated fat. For many years, CSPI specialized in publishing “exposes” of Mexican food, Greek food, fast-food, junk food, snack food, supermarket food—all had too much fat from cheese or meat—in fact, just about every source of comestibles that offered so much as a whiff of animal protein was deemed verboten, according to CSPI’s nutritional Nazis.

Basically, they hated the meat industry, loathed meatpackers, despised ranchers and demanded government’s full and total intervention to ban meat and dairy from schools, public institutions and eventually—they hoped—from the consciousness of the American consumer.

An about face

But guess what? Scientific research—that is, the kind done by scientists, as opposed to the muck-raking favored by anti-industry activists—revealed that treating soy or canola oil with hydrogen gas actually didn’t produce a “healthier” ingredient. In fact, trans fats increasingly became associated with even worse cardiovascular outcomes than all the cheese in Wisconsin, since consumption of trans fat tends to elevate unhealthy levels of low-density lipoproteins, aka, “bad” cholesterol.

CSPI quickly switched sides and became a vigorous campaigner against trans fat, not because it was worse than animal fats, but because it was just as bad. Ironically, in the midst the group’s strident campaign to get trans fats banned, both foodservice operators and food manufacturers quietly substituted other oils for trans fats—all on their own.

So, to summarize: Here’s the guidance that the haters at CSPI (and plenty of other consumer groups) wanted their acolytes to follow:

  • 1980s: Don’t believe the evil marketers employed by the Meat-Industrial Complex. The saturated fat in meat, poultry and dairy will kill you. Stop eating those foods and switch to vegetable alternatives, such as margarine and soy protein.
  • 1990s: Don’t believe the paid-off shills at the American Heart Association: Too much soy protein can be harmful, so cut back on consumption of all those vegetarian analogs. But don’t switch to meat; that’s even worse.
  • 2000s: Don’t believe the manipulative advertisers employed by Big Food: Trans fat is a killer and it needs to be banned immediately. But also stay away from meat, dairy, soy and processed foods. Don’t patronize fast-food restaurants. Don’t buy snack foods. Don’t purchase or prepare anything in a box with a brand name on it.

More recently, they’ve campaigned against sports beverages, energy drinks, herbal concoctions, protein powders and nutritional supplements. They want fortified food processors to stop making claims that their products boost immunity, promote regularity, encourage weight loss, provide extra energy or enhance in any other way a person’s sense of well-being.

Heck, CSPI even filed a lawsuit against a manufacturer of walnuts for claiming that the omega-3 oils contained in those nuts “may lower cholesterol [and] protect against heart disease and stroke.”

Look, there’s some value in cautioning against buying the product claims shouted at you during infomercials, plastered on packaging or hawked relentlessly in TV ads. But for all its venom against “unnatural” foods, CSPI and its allies fail to grasp the most salient fact that undermines every sentence of their screed on dietary choices: Meat and milk are the most natural foods you can buy!

As a nation, we certainly have problems related to poor nutrition. But you want to know the simplest and most effective way to change that dynamic? Stop sucking down soda.

Of all the “bad” food choices one could make, guzzling soft drinks is the worst. It’s the No.1 cause of obesity, which is our No. 1 health problem.

Here’s the bottom line to the FDA’s mandatory labeling initiative to force trans fats out of the American diet: None of it would have been necessary had misguided crusaders like CSPI not gone to war on animal agriculture and the food products it creates.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.